Mailbag: In defense of the infield

Mailbag: In defense of the new infield

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's time for another weekly installment of the Twins mailbag.

Last week, I answered many of your questions from the team bus as the first of four legs of the Twins caravan took off for a five-day trip to the Northwest.

Being able to travel last week with the Twins caravan to North Dakota, South Dakota and some of the Northwest parts of Minnesota really gave me a sense of just how far Twins pride reaches. It's amazing to see fans turn out in droves to welcome the players and members of the organization. I really enjoyed the entire experience.

This week I'm getting ready to head out with the team caravan again for the South leg of the annual bus tour. It's one of three legs that will take place in the four days heading into TwinsFest. Catcher Joe Mauer, pitcher Carlos Silva, former Twins great Tony Oliva and Fox Sports Net's Dick Bremer will be on this part of the caravan as it travels to such towns as Sioux Falls, S.D. and Rochester, Minn. More stories will come as the trip continues this week.

As always, thanks again for the e-mails. I look forward to hearing from all of you again this coming week!

I see the infield defense as a concern again this year. Despite the uncertainties, especially surrounding Jason Bartlett and Tony Batista, the club's attitude is that an improved defense in 2006 is a given. What's your opinion? Is the projected Opening Day lineup in the infield for 2006 really a defensive improvement?
-- Ben W., LeCenter, Minn.

The focus of the infield improvements, Ben, should first go to the addition of Luis Castillo. Having a Gold Glove winner and former All-Star in Castillo is a big improvement for the middle of the infield. The second base position was one of much transition and uncertainty last year, and adding Castillo should fix that question mark.

Trading for Castillo may also aid in the development of Bartlett, the likely starter at shortstop. Though Bartlett had his fair share of ups and downs last season, including a stint back at Triple-A, he finished the year strong upon his return. He has been working this offseason to improve his defense and will be doing extra field work in Florida before the start of Spring Training. Having a consistent veteran at second should help Bartlett feel more comfortable and give him someone from which to watch and learn.

As far as Batista, his range is limited at third, and with his absence from the Majors last season, it has yet to be seen what type of glove he possesses. The Twins are confident he will be able to fill in adequately at third, but his contract is non-guaranteed -- which means there remains some question as to how he will perform. It will take a few games at Spring Training to see exactly what Batista may bring to the club. Despite the question marks, the defense only seems like it can improve from the shaky ground it was on last season. Another year of experience for first baseman Justin Morneau and Bartlett along with the addition of Castillo should make for a stronger defensive lineup in the infield.

I read an article recently that Kyle Lohse, Michael Cuddyer, and Nick Punto are arbitration eligible if they don't come to a salary agreement with the Twins. Could you explain how the process of arbitration works?
-- Craig H., Fargo, N.D.

Craig, you aren't alone in having difficulty understanding the arbitration process. It isn't always easy for us reporters to understand either. But first, let me say the Twins are now down to two players who are arbitration eligible after they agreed to terms with Cuddyer on a one-year deal Saturday.

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As far as the arbitration process goes, it works a little like this. After a certain amount of time spent at the Major League level (usually between three and six years), a player is eligible to receive arbitration from a team. That is, a player can seek more money or what is deemed reasonable from a club. A team can choose to offer a player arbitration or they can non-tender the player and lose the player's rights. If arbitration is offered and a deal is not hammered out before a certain deadline, then salary figures must be exchanged.

Arbitration hearings begin in February and a neutral arbitrator is brought in to decide between the player's offer and the team's offer -- there is no compromise in between. Evidence of a player's performance ability and leadership is weighed to render a decision. Statistics are often the key arbitration tool.

The process can often be a long and arduous one, which is why players and teams prefer to negotiate a deal before it reaches that stage of the process. That isn't always the case -- as witnessed with Lohse last season -- and it appears the Twins could once again be headed for more hearings with the numbers for Lohse so far apart once again. Hopefully I've done a fair enough job explaining it but then again, one can only hope.

How is Torii Hunter's recovery coming? Will he be ready to dive right in at 100 percent at the start of Spring Training, or will it take him a little longer to get his legs back under him? Also, how do you think his injury will affect his play this season?
-- Austin L., Apple Valley, Minn.

From all the reports I've heard from coaches and other players, Austin, it appears Hunter should be just fine heading into this season. Torii has been training at his home near Dallas and has been able to do all the kind of exercises he has needed to prepare for the upcoming season. It still might take Hunter a little longer to get back into playing form due to the time he missed at the end of the season, but it won't be long into Spring Training before he's the player everyone expects to see. As far as the injury affecting his play this season, it doesn't seem like that will be a problem.

After letting Jacque Jones go, I thought Lew Ford would get to be an everyday outfielder. Since he proved the past two seasons that he is a great player when he gets consistent time, why not give him a guaranteed shot?
-- Jon D., Port Neches, Texas

Jon, Lew will get his fair shot at the right-field spot, but as for a guaranteed spot in the lineup there isn't a single player on the club that will have that luxury. The competition for the right-field spot appears to be a hotly contested one, and knowing the type of hard worker Ford is and the talent he has shown over the past two seasons, he will be right smack dab in the middle of it.

A fan favorite, Ford has been getting plenty of support through the e-mails I have received and the coaches also have voiced their support of what Lew can bring to the club. No matter what, Ford will be a part of the Twins this coming season. As to whether he will be in right field as the daily starter, it will depend on Spring Training and how he does in the field and at the plate.

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.