Friday, April 8, 2011

Checking the questions

The 2011 Twins have two areas in which they are unproven: The middle infield and the bullpen.  The success or failure of those multi-piece reconstruction projects figures to be a running topic this season.

Let's take a quick look after the first week of games — recognizing, of course, that the sample sizes are excruciatingly small:

Alexi Casilla was hit by a pitch in the seventh inning
Thursday and eventually scored.
Middle infield: Struggling. Second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka performed better both at the plate and in the field in spring training than he did on the opening road trip, and now he has a broken leg. Shortstop Alexi Casilla is hitting a mere .167/.231/.333, which is still a better OPS than Nishioka's .208/.269/.250.

The immediate outlook: Luke Hughes, who made a splash early in spring training with a string of home runs, has been called up to fill Nishioka's roster spot. He's not regarded as an adept fielder, but he's likely to get a good share of the playing time at second, with Matt Tolbert getting the rest. There figure to be opportunities for Ron Gardenhire to play match-ups here, but that's not one of the manager's stronger suits.

Bullpen: Doing OK, or even better. The 'pen has combined to throw 19 innings in six games (which is obviously too many), in which they've allowed one home run and eight runs, all earned (3.79 ERA).

That damage was heavily concentrated in the opener, when Dusty Hughes and Jeff Manship combined to allow five runs in two innings. Since that embarrassment,  the Minnesota bullpen has allowed three runs in 15 innings, a much more palatable 1.80 ERA, and didn't allow a run at all in New York.

The immediate outlook: It's going to be some time before Joe Nathan works back-to-back days, and nobody knows when/if his velocity will return to pre-surgical levels. He's had two outings, one good and the other barely adequate. Matt Capps is certainly a good alternative to Nathan in the ninth, but then who is the alternative to Capps in the set-up role? That's the real work in progress.

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