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So this is supposed to be the new spark plug of the Twins? With several huge ice packs Ace-bandaged to his aching left knee and surgically repaired left hip, Luis Castillo didn't look like the player that hitting-challenged Minnesota had hoped for when the club traded two minor league pitchers to the Marlins for him in December. No need to worry, the 30-year-old second baseman assured a visitor (who wasn't so easily convinced): The ice was just a preventive measure.
A five-time .300 hitter, Castillo was the most impressive acquisition in a typically unimpressive off-season for the Twins. In addition to Castillo, they signed three aging journeymen: 34-year-old outfielder Rondell White, who joins his seventh club in the last seven seasons; 32-year-old third baseman Tony Batista, who spent last season in Japan; and 40-year-old DH-outfielder Ruben Sierra, who's been a regular in only one season since 1996. That's not a huge upgrade to an attack that finished last in the AL in runs.
Compared with the paths of the three other newcomers, the career of Castillo, who spent his first 10 seasons with the Marlins, is a model of stability. A three-time Gold Glove winner and All-Star, Castillo made only 13 errors in 268 games at second over the last two seasons. Castillo's ability to serve as a catalyst in the two hole of the batting order, however, is open to speculation. After averaging 48 stolen bases from 1999 through 2002, he has not swiped more than 21 since, bottoming out last season, when he had 10. Complicating Castillo's vow to return to the days when he easily stole 30 bases is the Metrodome's artificial turf, which could take a toll on his fragile knee.
"I know what people are saying about me: I can't steal, I can't play every day," says Castillo, who missed 40 games in 2005 and allows that he isn't back to 100% yet. "But I plan to play every day, and I plan to be more aggressive on the bases. I will run. You have to understand, in Florida last year I batted second, and [Miguel] Cabrera and [Carlos] Delgado were behind me, and so I wasn't [encouraged to run]."
General manager Terry Ryan believes the Metrodome's AstroPlay, a more forgiving turf than the asphalt-hard AstroTurf it replaced in 2004, will minimize the pounding on Castillo's legs. "It's more of a surface conducive to baseball, more of a true surface," he says. "It'll be to Luis's liking."
Perhaps because Minnesota--which scored two or fewer runs in 51 games last season, tied for second most in the league--doesn't have Cabrera- and Delgado-type hitters in the middle of the lineup, manager Ron Gardenhire will give Castillo the green light on the bases. "We're not going to sit around and wait for three-run homers," Gardenhire says. "That's obviously not the kind of team we have."
The Twins once again will count heavily on a contender-quality pitching staff, led by the league's best pitcher, Johan Santana, who is 36--13 with a 2.74 ERA in 67 starts over the last two seasons; during that time he struck out 503 batters in 4592/3 innings. While the numbers speak to Santana's dominance, the win total reflects a lack of run support. In 18 no-decisions over the last two seasons, the 27-year-old lefty has given up three or fewer runs 14 times. To help Santana avoid wasting many more strong performances, Minnesota needs greater production from catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, who combined for 31 homers in 979 at bats in 2005. Ryan says that he may have expected too much too soon from Mauer, 22, and Morneau, 24, but this year they should provide more pop behind Castillo and leadoff hitter Shannon Stewart.
"You have to understand the pressure on kids like that," says centerfielder Torii Hunter. "Imagine you're 23 years old, like Morneau last year, and you open the year for us in the four hole. I don't care what anyone says--that's pressure."
And it's not going away anytime soon. "In this division," says Gardenhire, "we can't afford to play offensively the way we played last year. Chicago and Cleveland don't give you anything. We used to be able to get 14 or 15 wins a year on some of the teams in the Central. No more."