The following is the third in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Middle infielders.
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Heading into 2006, the Twins had one main objective to help improve a struggling defense -- solidify the middle infield.
The task seemed a little more difficult than expected when the club came out of Spring Training without a true shortstop candidate and with a second baseman who still had to learn the American League.
Though the change didn't happen immediately, the middle infield eventually became one of the Twins' greatest strengths. The combo of second baseman Luis Castillo and shortstop Jason Bartlett played a large role in the club's impressive run at another AL Central title. As the team looks ahead to the '07 season, the questions that surrounded the middle infield last season have all but disappeared.
"There's no doubt about that, we're much more comfortable with our middle infield situation" Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "At this time last year, we were just getting Castillo and Bartlett hadn't proven that he could play at this level. Juan Castro was a fine player for us, but ultimately I would say we're a heck of a lot more in tune to what we have now than maybe a year ago."
When the team arrived at Spring Training last February, all expectations pointed to Bartlett and Castillo being the duo to turn the double play. Instead, that duo initially became Castillo and Castro, who had spent most of his career as a utility infielder.
An inability to provide leadership in the infield cost Bartlett the starting job out of Spring Training, and he was sent down to Triple-A Rochester. The instructions from manager Ron Gardenhire to Bartlett were simple -- become more vocal and show the club some leadership.
With the team floundering below the .500 mark near mid-June, the Twins called up Bartlett and hand him the everyday shortstop job. Bartlett started 99 straight games after the callup, hitting .309 with 18 doubles and 32 RBIs. He showed strong promise defensively and became the type of shortstop the club needed him to be.
"I think he finally started to show the productivity that we had anticipated," Ryan said. "He's got a lot of those attributes that complete shortstops require and have -- speed, range, athleticism. And he's still got offensive capabilities that I think can be built on. But he started to play the game up here the way he had in the Minor Leagues, when a lot of us got excited. It just took a little longer than we expected."
While Bartlett was honing his skills in Rochester, Castillo emerged as a steady force at second base. By the time Bartlett was called up, Castillo had established himself and was able to not only to provide solid defense but to aid in the shortstop's development, as well.
"He brought that veteran presence," Ryan said of Castillo. "He's an ex-Gold Glover, so you don't ever have to position him. About the only thing you concern yourself with Luis is thinking about his durability, but he played a lot."
Castillo was limited at times during the season by soreness in both legs, but he still managed to play in 142 games. And when the team was without a true leadoff hitter following Shannon Stewart's injury, Castillo stepped up in the role.
"He knows how to use the turf," Ryan said. "And as a leadoff man, he'll take a walk and work deep in counts. He's just a confident guy, offensively and defensively."
Just because the team is comfortable with its middle infield doesn't mean Castillo and Bartlett don't need to improve. Ryan feels baserunning could be better, and that a greater knowledge of the league should help Castillo improve upon his 25 stolen bases in '06. Bartlett nabbed just 10 bags last year.
"I think [Bartlett's] going to be a base stealer, but it will take some time and experience to be able to read pitchers and situations," Ryan said. "Working with [first-base coach] Jerry White on different pitchers' moves, along with release times of catchers and how to take leads, certainly will help. Jason can run, and I think that's one of those things that I don't know if people recognize just how fast he is -- he's pretty quick."
Bartlett should be able to harness that speed a little more in '07, since his workload is expected to greatly decrease. Shallow infield depth made it impossible to give Bartlett a day off in the heat of an '06 division race, but that isn't expected to happen again.
The team instead will rely on Luis Rodriguez to back up second base, and Rule 5 Draft pick Alejandro Machado and Alexi Casilla will give the team depth at shortstop.
"Last year, we were in a situation where every game was crucial," Ryan said. "Now we have ample people back there if we have any sort of problem."
With the way the club's double-play tandem emerged last season, the Twins aren't too concerned about backup plans anymore.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.