Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Twins bid on Tsuyoshi Nishioka

We may know as soon as Tuesday if the Twins are the recipients of a new middle infielder. Having indicated that they are indeed bidding on Japanese shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Bill Smith and company are now playing the waiting game to see if they are awarded the rights to negotiate with Nippon’s Pacific League batting champion.

Because the Chiba Lotte Marines, Nishioka's Nippon Professional Baseball team, filed for posting on the 17th, we likely won’t have an answer until November 22nd or 23rd if the Twins actually have the highest bid as the Marines have four days to review the submitted bids. What we do know that considering the weak middle infield market this offseason, multiple teams are interested including the Giants, Cardinals, Orioles and Mets. For what it is worth, by Nishioka’s own admission, he has indicated that he would prefer to play on West Coast.

The Star-Tribune’s Joe Christensen pegs the Twins’ chances of landing Nishioka to be fairly low:
“The chances of the Twins actually acquiring Nishioka seem slim, but their interest is telling. Manager Ron Gardenhire wants more speed in the lineup, and the team has identified the middle infield as the most logical place to add it.”
While described as a “speedster”, Nishioka is fast but isn’t exactly a wunderkind on the base paths. While he led Nippon Baseball League in stolen bases in ’05 and ’06 when he was 20 and 21 years old, he’s been pegged routinely in his attempts. According to Paul White’s USA Today article on him, in the past six years Nishioka has averaged 26 stolen bases but also averaged 12 caught stealing (a 68% success rate). His career stolen base percentage resides at 71.6%, which is borderline considering that the success rate should be closer to 75%. His success rate notwithstanding, Nishioka would be a definite upgrade in speed for the lineup.

It is unclear however exactly what the Twins intentions are with Nishioka and how his potential acquisition would affect future team-building. While a shortstop in Japan since 2006, many scouts and analysts feel that Nishioka is better suited for second base – a position he played for his first three seasons.

Because the Twins have a vacancy at second and the possibility of opening one up at short (if the Twins win the bid on Nishioka, they could conceivably decline to offer Hardy a contract or arbitration before the November 23rd December 2nd deadline), targeting Nishioka appears to provide the team with added flexibility this winter. After all, they could straight-up exchange Nishioka for J.J. Hardy at short, put Nishioka at second in the place of Orlando Hudson and keep Hardy leaving Alexi Casilla as a backup option or drop Hardy and slot Nishioka at second and move Casilla to short where reports say he’s more comfortable and natural.

While one of the better defensive shortstops in the league with a second-half surge offensively, some within the organization have seem to have grown dissatisfied with what J.J. Hardy brings to the table.’s Kelly Thesier postulates that the incumbent, JJ Hardy, could be non-tendered due to both his injury concerns and his continued upward mobility in the income category. On Wednesday afternoon, the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan added another level and said on Reusse & Mackey Show that he got the impression that Hardy’s requests for days off drove Ron Gardenhire crazy.

Giving further credence to the notion that the Twins would dump Hardy if they acquired Nishioki is the fact that they would be compensated about the same in 2011. According to MLBFanhouse’s Tom Krasovic, the posting fee (paid to the Chiba Lotta club) for Nishioka will exceed $4 million while his salary will be roughly $2 to $3 million per year. This would mean that the Twins would spend at least $6 million in 2011 for Nishioka’s services, roughly the equivalent cost of keeping Hardy.
And although Nishioka posted outstanding numbers in 2010, taking home the Pacific League’s batting title with a .346 average, there is a question about how he might perform after crossing the pond. Purveyor of NPB Tracker, a site that follows Japanese baseball, Patrick Newman notes at that:
“[Nishioka] posted a career highs in all three slash categories, at .346/.423/.482 easily eclipsing his previous bests of .300/.366/.463. Nishioka’s batting average was backed by a robust .389 BABIP, so regardless of what league he plays in next year, it will remain to be seen whether his 2010 performance was the result of luck, a genuine step forward, or good health.”
Without being able to examine his batted ball tendencies more thoroughly, I would speculate that given the chance that his numbers regress because of a severe spike in his BABIP and considering the adjustment for Major League pitching, we can expect his numbers to revert towards his career numbers (.293/.364/.426) or lower. Even so, that sort of product would best what an even a favorable estimate of Alexi Casilla would provide (who Bill James pegs to have a .268/.335/.333 season in 2011). As a switch-hitter with speed and on-base abilities, Nishioka would likely nestle in nicely to the number two spot in the batting order, filling the opening left by Orlando Hudson, and giving the Twins a solid one-two combination along with Denard Span.  

The most important take-away from this is that the Twins appear to have a sound philosophy this winter. Rather than overpay for a rental on the free agent market, the front office has made an attempt at solving a long-term problem more creatively. First, instead of re-signing Carl Pavano at his three-year asking price, they tried, unsuccessfully, to land the younger Hisashi Iwakuma. Now with an opening in the middle infield, they are targeting a young player versus trying to sign one of the drecks available on the free agent market. Whether or not the Twins find themselves in position to negotiate with Nishioka early next week, you have to applaud their thinking this offseason.