Tsuyoshi Nishioka flopped, Trevor Plouffe can't be trusted defensively, Alexi Casilla appears to be locked in at second base, and as has been the case for the past decade they don't have an obvious long-term solution in the minors, which means the Twins will be in the market for a shortstop. Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are wishful thinking, so here are 15 realistic options the Twins could pursue via trade or free agency and my take on whether or not they should.
Rafael Furcal: Most likely Furcal will be out of the Twins' price range, but if the big spenders are fighting over Reyes and Rollins there's a chance his demands could drop enough to get on their radar. Furcal hasn't been able to stay healthy and is coming off his worst season at age 33, but the speedy switch-hitter is a year removed from batting .300/.366/.450 and remains capable defensively. He's a risk, but if healthy few other shortstop options can offer his upside.
Jed Lowrie: Injuries and prolonged slumps have been the story of Lowrie's career so far and despite showing flashes of a strong bat he's 27 years old with a modest .252/.334/.408 career mark. He's also yet to play even 90 games in a season and there are some doubts about if he can handle being an everyday shortstop defensively. If the Twins trust his glove and Boston isn't asking a ton in trade the switch-hitting former first rounder could be a worthwhile gamble.
Marco Scutaro: If the Red Sox would rather keep Lowrie that could make Scutaro available. At age 36 he's at risk for a steep decline, but Scutaro's defensive numbers remain decent, he hit .299/.358/.423 in 113 games this season, and he's under contract for just one more year at $6 million. As a high-contact right-handed hitter with quality on-base skills and some pop Scutaro would be a much better fit atop the lineup than most other shortstop options.
Clint Barmes: His numbers away from Coors Field were terrible while playing for Colorado and Barmes hit just .244/.312/.386 in 123 games after a deal to Houston, but for an elite defensive middle infielder that's enough offense to make him a valuable all-around player. At age 33 the risk of a sudden range decline exists, but the free agent can dramatically improve the defense and has enough pop to be a palatable regular as long he's batting in the bottom of the lineup.
Jamey Carroll: He's quietly put together a decade-long career as a plus defender with strong on-base skills despite being stuck in the minors until age 28. Carroll had the best season of his career in 2010 at age 36 and then followed it up with an equally strong campaign at 37, hitting .290/.359/.347 with nearly as many walks (47) as strikeouts (58) and 10 steals without being caught. His range has slipped with age, but Carroll can be a nice stop gap on a one-year deal.
Ramon Santiago: As the Tigers' utility man Santiago has averaged just 278 plate appearances during the past four years, but he's hit .266/.335/.374 and is a plus defender at shortstop and second base. His power is limited and despite switch-hitting he's much weaker versus righties, but faring better off lefties might actually be a positive on the Twins. He'd be misused atop the lineup, but the free agent's on-base skills are decent enough to not be a total disaster there.
Ian Desmond: Linked to the Twins in the Denard Span-Drew Storen talks, Desmond took a step backward as the Nationals' shortstop in his second season, losing 50 points of OPS and remaining erratic defensively. Through his first 329 games Desmond has batted .262/.304/.387 with a putrid 262/68 K/BB ratio, 61 errors, and an Ultimate Zone Rating of -13.7 runs, so the Twins would have to be convinced that there's a lot more room for improvement at age 26.
Brendan Ryan: Defensive metrics consistently peg Ryan as a truly elite shortstop and while far from an asset offensively his .256/.313/.339 career line is basically identical to Casilla's career .252/.310/.337 mark. At age 30 he should have another season or two of fantastic glove work left in the tank and with one season remaining until free agency the Mariners may not want to give him a raise to around $3 million via the arbitration process.
Nick Punto: Last offseason the Twins smartly declined Punto's option for $4 million, but made a mistake by not offering him $1 million to return. He ended up signing with the Cardinals for $750,000 and missed much of the season with injuries, but when healthy had a career-year at the plate and started regularly in the playoffs. As a $4 million everyday player he'd again be a source of frustration, but as a utility man making $1 million Punto would be plenty useful.
Reid Brignac: Trading with the Rays should make every Twins fan nervous, but if Tampa Bay is sick of waiting for Brignac's bat to develop he may be worth acquiring at a big discount. Once a top prospect, he's now a 25-year-old career .231/.272/.325 hitter in 240 games. His stats in the minors aren't a whole lot better, but do suggest he can be something resembling a decent hitter and Brignac's glove rates well enough to support a sub par bat for the minimum salary.
Yuniesky Betancourt: An early reputation for a nice glove has given way to consistently awful defensive numbers and Betancourt has always been one of MLB's premier out-makers, with a .292 on-base percentage that ranks third-worst among all active players with at least 3,500 plate appearances. This season he got on base at a .271 clip, laughably drawing a grand total of 13 non-intentional walks in 152 games. Betancourt is a mess the Twins will hopefully avoid.
Alex Gonzalez: Gonzalez is one of the two hitters with 3,500 plate appearances and a worse career on-base percentage than Betancourt, with the major difference being that his defense has been good enough to live with the extreme out-making most years. At age 34 that may no longer be true and despite smacking 15 homers Gonzalez was brutal at the plate this season, hitting .241/.270/.372 with 126 strikeouts versus just 22 walks in 149 games.
Ronny Cedeno: His two great Triple-A half-seasons now look like obvious flukes, but Cedeno is still a quality defensive shortstop with just enough offense to be a passable stop-gap starter. Since being traded to Pittsburgh in mid-2009 he's hit .254/.297/.367 in 1,126 trips to the plate, which looks very ugly despite being just slightly below the MLB average of .263/.317/.380 for shortstops in 2011.
Jack Wilson: Once upon a time Wilson was a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop with a sub par bat who occasionally had a nice year offensively, but at age 33 his defense has fallen off and he's hit just .256/.292/.335 during the past four seasons. Wilson is a free agent after earning $34 million over the past six seasons, but if he's available for a one-year, $1 million deal and the Twins whiff on the various superior options he'd be a palatable last resort.
Orlando Cabrera: He already lacked range as a 34-year-old for the Twins down the stretch in 2009, so a 37-year-old Cabrera could be a disaster at shortstop and he's hit .251/.286/.332 in 253 games since leaving Minnesota. Cabrera, much like fellow over-the-hill free agents Miguel Tejada and Edgar Renteria, has a very recognizable name, tons of shortstop experience, and absolutely no business starting there for a big-league team in 2012.