Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Twins Win Bidding For Tsuyoshi Nishioka

The Twins moved aggressive during the 2009-2010 off season to shore up weaknesses in the middle infield as they had struggled mightily to get production from those positions. First, GM Bill Smith moved quickly to pry JJ Hardy away from the Brewers for Carlos Gomez. Then he played the waiting game and came away with Orlando Hudson at a reasonable price.

While both Hudson and Hardy struggled throughout the year with injuries and didn't come close to realizing their full offensive potential, the layout proved beneficial as the Twins, with help from those two additions, vaulted to 94 wins in 2010. Now a year later the team will watch as Hudson departs via free agency and the decision on what to do with Hardy becomes complicated.

In an attempt to create some stability, the Twins placed their bid for NPB League MVP Tsuyoshi Nishioka. On November 26th came up the winners of the exclusive negotiation rights when the Chiba Lotte Marines accepted the Twins 5.6m bid. That gave the Twins a 30 day time frame to complete a deal with Nishioka. Should they be unable to complete the deal, the bid would be refunded.

As a general rule of thumb, players tend to sign contracts that are generally in line with their bids. Diasuke Matsuzaka signed a 50m deal after a winning bid of 51.1m, for example. Expectations are that the Twins should eventually be able to agree on a deal of around 3y/9m. Such a deal would secure Nishioka through his age 29 season.

Nishioka is regarded as a good defensive player at both shortstop and second base with good range and a solid/average arm, though more than one source has speculated that his arm would play better at second than short in the Majors. He does struggle with errors, but that should be more than made up for by his above average range. And, as long as Hardy is with the Twins (and that might not be for much longer) he'll almost certainly be slotted in at second.

Offensively Nishioka is harder to peg. There has been much talk about the fact that he topped Ichiro's single-season hit record, but little mention of his past as an injury plagued league average player. At his best, he's a player who will hit for solid averages, draw some walks, steal some bases, and slap the ball around while using the gaps for his extra base power. He does have enough power to project for a handful of home runs, but the elongated leg kick that he and so many other Japanese players utilize doesn't translate well to the Major Leagues and it's likely he'll need to drop that, which could diminish his power further. Think, .300/.375/.425 - .800.

The problem is that Japanese players, outside of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, have struggled to translate their offensive talents at the Major League level. Couple that with the fact that, until last year, Nishioka was a fairly average player who struggled to stay healthy and there is some legitimate downside. He could certainly wash out the way a much more accomplished Kaz Matsui did and prove to be nothing more than an error prone, low OPS second baseman.

Thankfully from the Twins perspective, they won't be paying him like a legitimate star. Rather, they'll be paying him like a replacement-level free agent, so the downside with his contract is pretty minimal and the upside - that he hits .275/.350/.400 or better - is significant. Should Nishioka be able to translate his offensive game to the States, he could easily prove to be a 3.0 WAR player and an extremely cost effective option at a premium position.

Odds are of course, that he falls somewhere in between and, for a million less than the Twins gave Nick Punto last year, they get all the production and more.

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