Updated: April 7th, 2011 10:59pm
Mackey: Twins middle infield certainly no stranger to unpredictability

Mackey: Twins middle infield certainly no stranger to unpredictability

by Phil Mackey

The funny thing about unpredictability is how predictable it can be.

Especially as it pertains to the Minnesota Twins middle infield.

On April 7, 2002 -- which happened to be manager Ron Gardenhire's first week as skipper -- second baseman Luis Rivas was plunked in the left wrist by Kansas City Royals right-hander Dan Reichart.

It was discovered later that Rivas suffered a fractured wrist. He was placed on the disabled list and did not return until June.

Fast forward to Thursday -- nine years later, to the day.

Second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka was in the process of turning an otherwise routine groundball double play when New York Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher slid directly into his plant (left) leg and fractured the fibula.

Of course, Rivas wasn't exactly the centerpiece of that Twins' lineup in 2002, and they still managed to win 94 games and later reach the American League Championship Series.

Nishioka's value, and the impact of his absence, is still relatively unknown, as he has yet to establish much of a performance baseline. But if Luke Hughes is the man who replaces him on a daily basis, the Twins will likely miss Nishioka's glove the most.

Two different injuries, yes, and possibly two different recovery times -- a prognosis is still unknown for Nishioka, but similar injuries can take approximately one month to heal -- but still an odd coincidence.

Not necessarily surprising, however, considering the unpredictability and instability of the Twins' middle infield situation over the past decade.

Every spring, it seems the same question is asked:

Will this be the year the Twins end the season with the same middle infield combination they started with?

Through injuries, lack of productivity, trades, or some combination of all three, 21 different middle infielders have started at least 10 games in a season during Gardenhire's nine-plus years as skipper.

Rivas, Cristian Guzman, Denny Hocking, Jay Canizaro, Chris Gomez, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto, Augie Ojeda, Jason Bartlett, Luis Rodriguez, Brent Abernathy, Bret Boone, Juan Castro, Luis Castillo, Adam Everett, Alexi Casilla, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Orlando Cabrera, J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson.

Nishioka, and possibly Hughes, would make it 23.

Alex Prieto once started eight games. Trevor Plouffe started seven.

Alex Prieto...

A look back

2002: Guzman and Rivas bookended the season, but Hocking and Canizaro also started at least 20 games each up the middle, due in large part to Rivas' wrist injury.

2003: Guzman and Rivas.

2004: Guzman and Rivas were penciled in to start the season, but Rivas' sub-.300 on-base percentage -- and a strained groin suffered in May -- forced Gardenhire to make a move. By the end of the year, Cuddyer was starting at second base in the ALDS.

2005: This is where the real game of musical chairs began. Rivas and Jason Barlett started the season as Gardenhire's double-play combination, but by the end of the year, eight players started at least 14 games up the middle -- Rivas, Cuddyer, Bartlett, Punto, Rodriguez, Castro, Abernathy and Boone. Or a .170-slugging stunt double who looked a lot like Boone.

2006: Tired of so much uncertainty, the Twins traded for second baseman Castillo in December, 2005. He kept things steady for 142 games, but his double-play partners rotated from Castro to Punto to Bartlett by the end of the season.

2007: Out of contention, the Twins traded Castillo to the Mets halfway through the season, allowing a young Casilla a chance to showcase his abilities. As it turned out, Casilla -- much like the Twins as a team -- sputtered mightily, hitting just .222/.256/.259 in 204 plate appearances. Barlett played most of the season at shortstop, with Punto and Rodriguez also seeing large chunks of playing time up the middle.

2008: Another year of musical chairs, with five players starting at least 18 games up the middle, including Harris and Everett out of the gate. Of course, Everett lasted only two weeks before a shoulder injury forced him to the shelf on April 15. Punto took over shortstop duties, but he landed on the disabled list twice in '08 with left thigh issues. Those injuries left Casilla and Tolbert to fight for the other innings, with Harris eventually sliding over to third base on a semi-regular basis to cover for the woeful Mike Lamb. Casilla exploded in late-May as one of the Twins' best hitters, but he cooled off significantly as the year progressed and has yet to ever match the same offensive production.

2009: Because of the promise he showed in '08, Casilla was given the starting nod at second base, alongside shortstop Punto. That plan lasted about five weeks. Casilla was benched in early-May after hitting only .167/.231/.202 in his first 92 plate appearances. A combination of Punto, Tolbert and Harris patchworked the middle infield until the Twins traded for Cabrera after the All-Star break.

2010: The Hudson and Hardy experiment went awry early, with each suffering wrist injuries prior to the All-Star break. When healthy, Hardy and Hudson actually provided some of the best offensive production the Twins have seen up the middle during the Gardenhire era. But the front office wanted to lean cheaper, younger and faster, which led to the Nishioka-Casilla experiment for 2011.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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