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News » Minnesota Twins' Smith, Cliburn make the case for Alexi Casilla

Minnesota Twins' Smith, Cliburn make the case for Alexi Casilla

Minnesota Twins' Smith, Cliburn make the case for Alexi Casilla
Alexi Casilla's career is in Stan Cliburn's hands at the moment, and the Rochester manager believes it's a good place to be. See, he's done this resurrection bit before.

"Lexi reminds me so much of Jason Bartlett, and I'm very proud of how much we helped him," Cliburn said last week after his Red Wings added Casilla, demoted from the Twins after a disastrous five weeks. "Both of them are smart young men who just need to develop the mental part to go with their physical gifts."

The parallels are evident. Like Bartlett, now an established big-leaguer as the Tampa Bay Rays' starting shortstop, Casilla is a middle infielder, acquired while still in the low minors through a seemingly insignificant trade, who surprised the Twins by bursting into their big-league lineup ahead of their projections.

But just as Bartlett was stunned to be demoted in 2006 after believing he had made the Twins , Casilla's 2008 breakthrough was only temporary. Casilla, like Bartlett three years earlier, lacks the focus and composure to succeed in the majors, in manager Ron Gardenhire's judgment.

"It's more than numbers. You look at the way a player carries himself, how he hustles, what his body language is like," Cliburn said. "It's my job to help Lexi get his mind right."

If and when he does, the Twins still project Casilla to be their second baseman for several seasons to come. Nothing about this transaction should be considered permanent, general manager Bill Smith said.

"Lexi is only 24. Young players have all sorts of ups and downs before they become established, and this hasn't changed our opinion of him," Smith said. "We have a good track record of giving players time to regroup and sharpen their skills at the Triple A level."

A.J. Pierzynski and Kevin Slowey, for example, were players who came to the big leagues, then needed to go back down and collect themselves, he said. Casilla fits that profile, too, Smith said, and he implied that he has no plans to shop for another second baseman.

Casilla energized the Twins' fortunes last May when he was called up and handed Brendan Harris' job at second, and he was batting .313 with four homers and 39 RBIs when he tore ligaments in his thumb in late July. That's the real Casilla, Smith believes, although he has never batted .300 in Class AA or AAA.

And the Twins don't have much depth in their system at the position -- though, like Casilla, shortstops can be converted if necessary. None of the Twins' top 10 minor league prospects, according to Baseball America magazine, is a middle infielder, though several observers have suggested Class A outfielder Ben Revere, Minnesota's first-round draft pick in 2007, could successfully be moved there. Steve Tolleson is playing second base at Class AA but is batting just .190 this year.

None of that seemed to matter in February and March. Casilla appeared to re-establish himself with a strong spring training, but things fell apart when he started slowly once the regular season began. A 2-for-27 stretch from April 11-22 dropped his average to .184, "and he really got himself out of whack trying to do anything to get out of it," Gardenhire said. "The next thing you know, it becomes panic."

Then came a series of mistakes on the field, everything from a lack of hustle to defensive misjudgments.

"You forget some things when you start struggling -- you start worrying about your swing instead of using your speed and bunting and slapping the ball. You start worrying about your mechanics of your swing and you start taking it out defensively," Gardenhire said. "The whole thing kind of fell on top of him."

Casilla was sent down, Matt Tolbert was called up to replace him, and some Baseball analysts wrote off Casilla's future. "Really, there simply isn't a place for him in the major leagues," columnist Rob Neyer wrote on . "It speaks well of the Twins that they've figured this out. It speaks poorly of them that it took so long."

Gardenhire made it clear that the Twins believe no such thing. Tolbert will be given a chance to make the job his own, the manager said, but he expects Casilla to be back in Minnesota later this year, just as Bartlett was after 10 weeks of Triple A service in 2006.

"He'll be back because he's a very, very good ballplayer," Gardenhire said. "It's not a matter of talent; he's very talented. He just needs to get his head on straight."

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: May 10, 2009

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