Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tsuyoshi Nishioka and a middle infield in flux

Tsuyoshi Nishioka spent much of his career in Japan's
Pacific League playing for former Mets and Rangers
manager Bobby Valentine, who speaks highly of him.
It would appear that this copy editor/blogger will need to learn to spell Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

The Twins on Friday were awarded the negotiation rights to Nishioka, a switch-hitting middle infielder who won the Pacific League batting championship in 2010 by hitting .346 for the Chiba Lotte Marines. Minnesota now has 30 days to reach a contract agreement with the 26-year-old.

So ... let's review the Twins' middle infield situation, in order of the pending deadlines for each candidate.

Orlando Hudson, the incumbent second baseman, is a Type B free agent. The Twins earlier this week offered him arbitration, a move likely intended to secure a compensation draft pick next summer. Hudson is expected to decline arbitration. The deadline for the O-Dog to decide is Tuesday.

J.J. Hardy, the incumbent shortstop, was rumored in the immediate wake of the season to be a non-tender candidate, but now the buzz is that the Twins won't cut him loose. The deadline to tender a contract is Thursday, Dec. 2.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a blank slate to most of us American fans. It's worth noting that Kaz Matsui, the only Japanese middle infielder to come stateside, never lived up to his advance billing.  Matsui had better numbers in Japan, and more glowing scouting reports. Published scouting reports doubt that Nishioka has enough arm to play shortstop in the U.S. majors, and it's worth noting that he was just a career .280 hitter in Japan before his 2010 breakout. He has displayed little power in Japan, and most Japanese hitters lose power when they play in the American majors.

Maybe the 2010 season wasn't a fluke. Or maybe he's simply Nick Punto without the throwing arm. I respect the Twins scouting acumen, and they have put up several million that say Nishioka's a good major league player. I'm skeptical, but all I've seen of him is this video.

But he doesn't have to be a star. Nishioka's clearly faster than Hudson or Hardy, and if he can play second base well, fill the second slot in the batting order and hit .280, he'll help. 

Winning the rights to sign him and signing him are two different things, but most Japanese players who go through the posting process sign. The rule of thumb has been that the posting fee and the total contract are about even, but the winning bid was somewhere around $5 million-$5.3 million, and I don't see him headed out of his comfort zone for a package that low. Still, he's likely to come cheaper than either incumbent.

Alexi Casilla, incumbent reserve, had been touted this offseason as a potential low-price starter in 2011. He may still fit in that role: If Hudson walks and the Twins sign Nishioka and trade Hardy, they suddenly have two speedy switch-hitting middle infielders and a spring-training decision to make. Who's the shortstop and who's the second baseman?

Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto: Tolbert is out of options, Punto is a free agent. If the Twins wind up going with Hardy at short and Nishioka at second, Casilla is the primary reserve and Punto is a goner. If they go with Nishioka and Casilla as the middle infield, I think Gardenhire will want Punto as a security blanket. Nishioka and Casilla represent two question marks in the middle infield; for a contender, that's at least one too many.

T-S-U-Y-O-S-H-I N-I-S-H-I-O-K-A. Hey, I learned to spell (Doug) Mientkiewicz and (A.J.) Pierzynski. I ought to be able to master this.


  1. Who is a back up at third?

  2. I doubt the Twins keep Punto; if he does stay, he'll be a 10 & 5 player, and I doubt the Twins would want to be handcuffed in future dealings, esp. with a player with his limited ability (defensive whiz, offensive fail).

  3. Re: Punto service time... While Punto did make his MLB debut almost 10 years ago, there have been several of those seasons where he had very little time in the Majors. I believe he actually has accumulated less than 8 years of MLB service time. That would keep the Twins from doing anything really stupid, like giving him a 3 year deal, but I don't believe you should rule out bringing him back on a one-year deal if he doesn't get a better offer elsewhere.

  4. Regarding 3b backup: Casilla played there a bit last season early on, BV (before Valencia). Cuddyer could be deployed there again.

    And I think the 10-and-5 thing, even if it applied to Punto, is an exceedingly minor consideration. He won't, if he returns to the Twins, be making enough money for it to matter in terms of dumping salary should they fall out of contention. That would be in the salary range of people like Cuddyer.

  5. If the Twins get Nishioka, I can't wait to hear Blyleven try and pronounce that name. It's gonna be hilarious!