In completing their signing of 26 year old Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka the Minnesota Twins "solved" at least half of the middle infield puzzle that was created when the team allowed second baseman Orlando Hudson to leave via free agency and traded away shortstop J.J. Hardy. And, if I were to judge the quality of a signing simply by fan reaction, this would appear to be great news.
I'm not so sure.
While Nishioka had a phenomenal 2010 campaign that saw him hit .346/.423/.482 - .905, while being named the MVP of the NPB, he had a career OPS of just .758 entering 2010 after seven professional seasons. For as troubling as it is that his 2010 campaign is such a significant outlier - it's equally unsurprising to see that it was largely the result of almost insurmountably good luck as he had a BABIP of .395 after having a career BABIP of just .322.
If we were to normalize his 2010 season by gutting those 73 extra points of BABIP, you're left with something much closer to his career OPS mark of .758. A line of .273/.350/.380 - .730. On top of that, he'll be playing in a league that has proven to be extremely harsh to every Japanese player (not named Ichiro) to make the switch. Even good players like Hideki Matsui went from being 50 home run hitters (in a 140 game season) to maxing out at 31 in the Majors. While Nishioka managed to hit 14 home runs last year, and 13 in 2009, I'm guessing that like every Japanese player who came before him, he'll lose most, if not all of that pop in the Majors.
With all the gloom and doom parsed, I should note that Nishioka does have some skills that should translate to the Majors. He's demonstrated a good eye at the plate throughout his career, and does a good job limiting the strikeouts, suggesting that he's a decent contact hitter. He's also got some speed, as he managed to steal an average of 28 bases during his six full seasons in NPB. Unfortunately, his success rate of just 72% is a tick below the point where stealing bases is actually beneficial, and moving to a league where the catchers are much better is going to limit his ability to steal bases as well.
The more I think about this, and the more I discuss it with others, the more it becomes apparent to me that it's significantly more likely that Nishioka's 2010 season was a flash in the pan. Something that, even in the significantly easier NPB, would be almost impossible for Nishioka to duplicate.
At his best, I see Nishioka as a .275/.350/.400 hitter in the Majors, and even that relatively paltry .750 OPS seems more and more unlikely as the facts of the situation continue to percolate inside my mind. It's probably more likely that he hits .260/.330/.360. Of course, given the MLB average OPS for shortstops (.690) and second basemen (.718) in 2010 - a .690 mark isn't quite as bad as it would first appear.
And lest we forget, offense isn't all that encompasses Tsuyoshi Nishioka (or any non-DH I guess...). He's also a three time winner of the NPBs version of the Gold Glove, having won the award at both second base and shortstop. If he can manage to be a plus defender in the Majors that could add significantly to his value. That's no sure thing, but it's significantly more likely that his defense transfers over than his offense.
So let us assume that Nishioka provides a .690 OPS and a +5 UZR/150. That would essentially make him a league average middle infielder - or maybe just slightly below average. Given the Twins total commitment of about 14.5m between his 9.25m in guaranteed contract and the 5.3m bid- they'll essentially be paying him like a 1.1 or 1.2 WAR player. That's something Nishioka should be perfectly capable of being, even given my predictions of a threadbare offensive game.
Now that I've provided you with eight paragraphs of predominantly negative commentary, let me also note that Nishioka will be just 26 in 2011 and that there is plenty of time left for him to improve his game and it's almost certain that his best years are ahead of him. If Nishioka can improve, say into the .750 OPS player I mentioned as his upside earlier, and instead of being a +5 UZR/150 player, were to be a +1- UZR/150 player - well, now you're talking about one of the better overall middle infielders in the game.
In that scenario, the Twins would have locked up a player who was simply capable, they'd have locked up a very good (not quite all-star) player through the prime of his career who could be worth as much as 3-4 WAR at a cut-throat rate. It's likely that Nishioka will, at the least, prove to be a competent every day player, and indeed, there is the possibility for more.
For Twins fans sake, we ought to hope that he outperforms my estimate of a .690 OPS because if not, the Twins jettisoned two players in Hardy and Hudson who were perfectly capable of producing similar or better results for a similar amount. And you know the old saying...