When shortstop Cristian Guzman inked a 4 year, $16.8 million deal with
the Washington Nationals last November, it marked the end of a tantalizing and frustrating era in Minnesota. Guzman, an All
Star in 2001, never fully took advantage of his impressive abilities and more than any other player, contributed to manager
Ron Gardenhire’s rapidly receding hairline.
That being said, his departure did leave a rather sizeable void on the
left side of the Twins infield, and since veterans like Omar Vizquel and Pokey Reese found greener pastures elsewhere, nobody
was quite sure who would or could fill it. Thus the Twins headed into spring training with the unimpressive group of Augie
Ojeda, Juan Castro, Nick Punto, and Jason Bartlett vying for Guzman’s vacated position.
Ojeda and Castro are journeyman utility players in their 30s that have
proven two things in their careers – they are solid with the glove and can’t hit major league pitching. Punto
is 27 years old and has 194 major league at bats and a .237 average to his credit – an Ojeda or Castro in the making.
That leaves Jason Bartlett, easily the most intriguing player of the group.
A rookie who received a brief call up in 2004, Bartlett has hit at every minor league stop and has opened eyes with his bat
this spring (.421 average as of March 26). Although Gardenhire hasn’t anointed him yet, it is looking more and more
likely that Bartlett will be the team’s shortstop on opening day, and possibly, for years to come.
Back in July of 2002 the Twins were desperate to unload lumbering and oft-injured
outfielder Brian Buchanan to free up playing time for younger prospects like Michael Cuddyer and Bobby Kielty. Let’s
just say there wasn’t a huge market for Buchanan’s services, but the Twins, thin throughout their organization
in the middle infield, were able to pluck a shortstop out of lower reaches of the San Diego Padres minor league system. He
wasn’t regarded as a top flight prospect, but like Lew Ford, Kyle Lohse, and Joe Mays before him, Twins GM Terry Ryan
saw something in Jason Bartlett.
"I was surprised I got traded, but after they drafted Khalil Greene," Bartlett
explained, "I knew something was going to happen."
From there Bartlett began his ascension up the Twins minor league ladder,
hitting .296 with a .380 on-base-percentage and 41 steals at Double A New Britain in 2003. He began the 2004 season at Triple
A Rochester and was set to be called up in May when his right wrist was broken after being hit with a pitch.
"I looked at it in a positive way, it happened for a reason," the 25-year-old
said. "(Alex) Prieto came up and played second base, I hadn’t taken ground balls at second base for years."
Bartlett’s major league debut was put on hold, but not for long.
The wrist healed and, by late July, Bartlett finally found himself in the big leagues. "We (the Rochester Redwings) were
off the next day, so some buddies and I were barbequing all day," Bartlett said of the day he got the news of his call up.
"I got the call around 11:30 (pm on July 26, 2004), went home and packed, and left about seven in the morning the next day."
Now Bartlett finds himself on the verge of being the starting shortstop
on a pennant contending team. Last year, shortly after his call up and before his major league debut, the rookie told me,
"I am just glad to be up here, I am going to play wherever they put me and see how long I can stay up here."
It looks like they are putting him at shortstop, a job that could be his
for a long time.