I have to admit, I was excited when the Twins won the rights to negotiate with Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and, shortly thereafter, when they signed him to a 3 year, $9 million deal. It seemed like a decent price to pay for a Japanese player who, although not guaranteed to be a "star" in MLB, would likely be a good, starting infielder for the Twins. Back in March, I posted what I thought would be good first-year numbers for Nishioka: .270 batting average, .340 on base percentage, 25 stolen bases, 35 extra base hits. I envisioned him running wild at Target Field by hitting the ball hard to the gaps and down the lines.
Even taking into account the 2 months Nishioka missed as a result of the broken leg, and the fact that he was a rookie who would have to "learn the league," boy, was I wrong! As it stands today, Nishioka is batting .208 with a .259 on base percentage, has 4 extra base hits (all doubles), and is 2-for5 in stolen base attempts. As we all know, Nishioka's defense hasn't made up for his lack of offense. He has 8 errors in 132 attempts; his fielding percentage at shortstop is .967, while it is .923 at second base (where he no longer plays). If you watch Twins games regularly, though, you can probably remember another 10 or 20 plays during the season where a hitter was given credit for a hit on what should have been an error, or, more commonly, where Nishioka was out of position and it cost the Twins an out, thus prolonging the inning and further wearing down our pitching staff. Now, to be fair, every defensive player occasionally gets the benefit of errors credited as hits, and all fielders are caught playing out of position during the course of the long season, but, as with everything, it seems compounded in Nishioka's case. From the Twins' standpoint, things probably couldn't look much worse for Nishioka. In all seriousness, Toby Gardenhire's 2011 AAA offensive line of .262/.294/.333 looks pretty good right now. Maybe I'm being too critical, especially considering that Nishioka is still seeing teams, pitchers and ballparks for the first time as a result of his broken leg, but I guess I did expect more from the former Pacific League All-Star, batting champion and Gold Glove winner.
Where do the Twins go from here with Nishioka? They're into him for 2 more seasons and $6 million; I doubt any team would be foolish enough to want that contract on their books. The Twins, then, are in a position where they have to work with what they've got. They can't simply give up on Nishioka. To be sure, there have been some fantastic defensive plays, and a couple clutch hits this season, including a well-struck bases loaded double against Tampa Bay last month.
I would immediately send Nishioka to AAA for the rest of the season, not as a punishment, but for instruction and extended time to transition into MLB style baseball. There are times still where Nishioka seems confused by the strike zone, and his batting style of leaving the box as he hits the ball simply doesn't work for most players not named Ichiro. Nishioka clearly needs assistance and coaching, all of which could be provided to him, out of the spotlight, in Rochester. I'm sure Nishioka, as an accomplished athlete, wants nothing more than to succeed and help his team, and he simply is not doing that any better than could a career minor league player. But, he is relatively young, he is coachable, and he is a talented athlete. If the front office has any guts, this should be one of the first personnel moves as the team starts looking toward 2012.