MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Twins sent Luis Castillo to the Mets just before the July 31 trade deadline, the club reported that it was a move to open up a spot for Alexi Casilla at second base. Still, a positional battle will take place at second next spring and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said on Monday that one player will have a leg up going into that race. And no, it's not Casilla. If the '08 season started today, Gardenhire said Nick Punto would likely be the club's starting second baseman.
"We already know what we've got with Nick," Gardenhire said. "We know we've got a player. And [Casilla] has all the tools in the world, so nothing's a given. You have to go out and play. But if we were to start right now, I would say Nick would have a head up on him, believe me there. I know what he can do, catch the ball and make all the plays. So he's got a lead going into Spring Training, as far as I'm concerned." It's been a myriad of rookie mistakes both on and off the field that has prevented Casilla from taking hold of the position. That includes arriving late at the ballpark on Sunday which caused him to be taken out of the lineup. Casilla was not in the lineup again on Monday as Punto got the nod at second, after being what Gardenhire called "the best player on the field Sunday." Switching positions isn't something that Punto expected to do when he began the season as the club's starting third baseman. But his time at the position dwindled midseason due to his offensive woes. And after the club called up third baseman Brian Buscher in late July, Punto admits that he started to wonder about his future as an everyday player. "You never want to look into next season but sometimes it's hard not to when you get benched and you're not playing well," Punto said. Defense has not been an issue for Punto this season and things have recently started to turn around at the plate. In nine games since Sept. 5, Punto has hit .321 with two doubles and seven runs scored. That stretch has raised Punto's average on the season to .205, keeping him above the dreaded line. The last player to have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title and hit below .200 was Rob Deer in 1991. If Punto were to finish below the .200 mark, he would become just the fourth player in the past 32 years to do so. "It really doesn't mean a lot to me, .210 or .195, it's a failure," Punto said. "It was a very bad offensive season for me. But you persevere and you learn a lot through struggling like I have. It's just going to make me work that much harder and prepare that much harder for next year." Punto is trying not to look ahead to '08 as he's focused on finishing this season on a positive note. But he admits that the thought of a fresh start in spring will be a welcome relief. "You don't even know," Punto said with a laugh. "It will be so nice. I've beaten myself up a lot this year. Luckily, I have a wife that keeps me under control. She needs a fresh start, too. It's definitely been tough." Punto's hold on second base may be far from secure, but having the confidence of his manager is something Punto admits is a big boost heading into the offseason. And no one seems to be rooting harder for Punto than Gardenhire. "I hope he comes out and has a good spring," Gardenhire said. "I like him in my lineup, somewhere. He makes things exciting. But he's got to play. He's got to come back and rebound, we all know that.'' Who's on third? One of the main reasons that Punto is being considered at second base is that the Twins are going to look this offseason for a more prototypical third baseman. Gardenhire also mentioned that the club will try to address its hole at DH. But just how much leeway the club will have in those searches will depend on other aspects the team must address, like possibly center field, if Torii Hunter leaves via free agency. "There is a lot at stake this winter and we'll have to see what holes we have to fill," Gardenhire said. "But I know a third baseman is a priority. I'd like Nick in the middle." Topping the order: Since losing Castillo, the Twins have tried a variety of ways to fill out the top of their lineup. Lately it seems the club has found a solution by placing Jason Bartlett in the leadoff spot and Jason Kubel in the two hole. Kubel had never hit in the No. 2 spot before the club's series in Chicago a little over a week ago. He has adapted well to the role, hitting .286 with six RBIs and two runs scored in six games there. So it seems no surprise that Gardenhire is going to stick with what has been working. "Kubel's up there because he's learned about hooking the ball through the hole and he's seeing fastballs with Joe [Mauer] behind him," Gardenhire said. "I know he's a good fastball hitter. People want to make sure they don't get to Joe with too many men on base and Kube's been good. He likes it up there." Quotable: "I think this is the first team to take a lefty and not start him against us. Most teams bring up more lefties just to face us." -- Gardenhire, on the news that the Rangers would start right-hander Vicente Padilla in the series finale on Wednesday after deciding to shut down left-hander Kason Gabbard for the season Coming up: The Twins and Rangers will meet up for the second of their three contests on Tuesday night in a 7:10 p.m. CT start. Right-hander Carlos Silva (11-14, 4.44 ERA) will make his start despite being limited to just two innings in his outing on Wednesday with a sore groin. He will face off against Texas right-hander Kevin Millwood (9-12, 5.51).
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.