Punto's sights set on Twins' hot corner

Punto's sights set on Twins' hot corner

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Nick Punto isn't a stranger to the notion of coming to Spring Training without an everyday job.

When Punto arrived at Hammond Stadium on Tuesday morning -- a few days before Friday's official reporting date for position players -- he did so without a guaranteed position in the lineup. Having been in that situation before, Punto seemed OK to be going through this once again.

"This is fun," Punto said. "This is what it's all about -- the competitive nature. You try to get in here and compete. Try to prove to the manager that you should be an everyday player. That's fun for me.

"My goal is just to play every day," he added. "It doesn't matter where. I just want to play every day and be in that lineup."

Punto will be competing for playing time at third base this spring. The expectation has been that Punto and Brendan Harris could split time at the position, as the Twins filled the two other holes in their infield with the additions of shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Orlando Hudson.

But while Punto will be looking to secure a job this spring, the majority of the questions posed to the infielder had to do with something else -- the health of his right wrist.

It's been a little less than four weeks since Punto underwent a cleanup surgery to repair a slight tear in the cartilage of his right wrist. Punto had the wrist taped up on Tuesday as he prepared to go take some swings. He said that the wrist is feeling great and that doctors have cleared him to take part in all activities.

Although surgery wasn't done until last month, Punto said that the wrist first started bothering him around May or June of last season. It began bothering him when he was throwing and when he was batting left-handed, but not when he hit right-handed.

"I really started feeling it when I was playing on the left side of the field," Punto said. "What was kind of scary for me was throwing the ball across the diamond. I just didn't feel very comfortable with that."

Still, Punto was able to play through the injury. Things were made easier, Punto said, when he shifted over to second base after the Twins acquired shortstop Orlando Cabrera at the July 31 Trade Deadline. He was able to finish out the season without a problem, even making one of the more memorable throws in Game 163 against the Tigers to record the out at home in the 12th inning with the game tied at 5.

The belief of Punto was that the wrist would heal with rest during the offseason. An avid golfer, Punto was able to hit the links near his home in Arizona and not feel any pain at all in the wrist. So he assumed that the problem had disappeared. But when he started up baseball activities in January, his wrist flared up again.

"I kind of forgot about it. Then I started throwing again and I was like, 'Uh oh,'" Punto said.

Punto flew to the Twin Cities in late January, just before the club's annual TwinFest, and had the wrist examined. An MRI showed a slight tear in the cartilage, so he headed back to Phoenix to undergo the cleanup procedure.

He spent seven days in a splint, but Punto said his offseason workouts weren't really affected by the injury.

"At Athletes Performance, they had all kinds of things so that I wasn't holding weight but that I was still working out hard," Punto said. "It was good. It was a good offseason. I don't feel like I missed out on too much."

Twins general manager Bill Smith said on Monday the club plans to take it easy with Punto early on in camp. Although Punto is ready to go for the start of full-squad workouts, which begin on Saturday, Smith reiterated that there is plenty of time left before Opening Day and said the club doesn't want to rush Punto.

Manager Ron Gardenhire agreed.

"It all goes up to the player," Gardenhire said. "You don't want to get in a situation like this and press the player and let them do too much. It's always about not doing too much for these guys. I just want them to be calm."

Keeping Punto calm might not be an easy task, as he's known for his high energy and grittiness on the field. Punto admitted that won't be easy to take things slow at first this spring, but he understands the club's wishes and plans to ease into things.

Still, there is no question what Punto wants the end result of camp to be for him -- finding a permanent spot at the hot corner.

Punto started just three games at third base last season, but he's seen plenty of time at the position in recent years. In 2007, Punto began the year as the club's everyday third baseman after having taken over the position in the middle of the '06 season, when Tony Batista was released. He was lauded for his defensive play at the position, although his offense dropped off when he was handed the everyday job in '07.

Some of Punto's best seasons have actually come in years when he has not been handed a starting position heading into Spring Training. He batted .290 in 2006 after getting his everyday job at third base in June, and he batted .284 in 2008 after beginning the year in a utility role before finding an everyday spot in the lineup.

Punto believes that it's a coincidence that his best years have come when he's had to compete for a job. But he certainly wouldn't mind having that scenario repeat again this season, as he's once again having to vie for a position this spring.

"I'm just here to win a job," Punto said. "I've been in this position before. I enjoy it. I thrive on it. It should be a fun Spring Training."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.