Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: Good or Bad Move?



When the off-season began, I mentioned via Twitter that I had hoped the Twins would target a specific Japanese middle infielder to fill their second base hole. Unfortunately, my preference was Hiroyuki Nakajima, who from 2005-2009 had posted OPS' of .849, .801, .937 and .891. His Japanese team decided not to post him, though, and he wasn't available this off-season. The Twins did however win the bidding for a different Japanese middle infielder, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. For the sake of easiness, I'm going to be calling him Yoshi for the rest of the time I write about him.

From 2005-2009, Yoshi posted OPS' of .748, .759, .820 and .787. Last season, though, Yoshi had a breakout year in which he hit .346/.423/.482 and became the first player since Ichiro to finish with over 200 hits in a season. The Japanese season is only 144 games, so Yoshi's 209 hits are impressive any way you slice it. However, early signs seem to suggest that Nishioka was more lucky than good last year, as he hit an amazing .399 on balls in play. Someone with great speed and slap-hitting ability, like Ichiro, will often have a very high average on balls in play. But unfortunately Yoshi doesn't appear to have the same lightening quick speed as Ichiro, as he was only successful on about 70% of his steal attempts while in Japan over his career. That's not all that impressive, and it should be even worse playing with better players in the United States.

Also, while those OPS' look solid compared to middle infielders in the states, the fact is they can be expected to take a pretty big drop off when he arrives here and faces better competition. Both Akinori Iwamura and Kaz Matsui were elite power hitters in Japan before coming to play over here, and their power disappeared. The fact that Yoshi has never even had power in Japan is worrisome, and there's at least a chance that he never has even a decent season with the bat. An OPS approaching .700 next season would be a best-case scenario in my opinion, but I hope I'm wrong and he's much, much better.

The Twins have been predicted to sign Yoshi for anywhere between $9 and $18MM total over three years, and I think it will be much closer to if not exactly $9MM. That would put the Twins financial commitment at $14MM over three years, or just under the $5MM Orlando Hudson made last year. If the team is planning on moving Yoshi to second base and having him replace Hudson, I like the move. I don't think he's going to be a superstar or even an all-star caliber player, but he should be at least a good defensive second baseman and if he can hit .275/.335/.345 he'll be worth the money and still likely an upgrade over what Alexi Casilla would provide next season.

The Twins however are apparently at least considering leaving Yoshi at shortstop, and then trading JJ Hardy to save money and give Alexi Casilla the starting second base job. I already explained in great detail why Hardy is actually a bargain at $7MM and if he stays healthy next season he could be a top three shortstop in baseball. Replacing that with a relatively unknown middle infielder who's impressive 2010 season in Japan looks more like a fluke than anything would be a huge mistake for a team hoping to win yet another division title and hopefully avoid being swept in the playoffs again.

If the team keeps Hardy, uses Yoshi at second, and Casilla as a utility man, I'm on board with the move. If the team uses Yoshi at short, Casilla at second and trades Hardy for bullpen help or prospects, I will consider the signing a colossal mistake. Here's to hoping the Twins keep Hardy around and use Casilla where he's best suited, in a utility role. That would also keep Matt Tolbert off the roster, which is nothing but a good thing. We should know within the next week or two just how the middle infield will look in the spring, so count me among those who hopes the Twins keep Hardy.