Apart from his awful play in the field and at the plate, the Twins' contractual obligation to Tsuyoshi Nishioka pains me right now. After learning that the Twins were hoping to achieve a salary cap of approximately $100 million, I was hopeful that this was a "soft" cap -- that Terry Ryan was either not being honest with the media and fans, or that he would have the ability to spend above that for a player that could be a big difference-maker. It's no secret, of course, that the biggest difference-maker the Twins need would be a #1 or #2 caliber starting pitcher, or at least a #3 level veteran with the ability to miss some bats.
Then, we hear yesterday that the Twins officially signed veteran starter Jason Marquis to a 1-year, $3 million contract. Sure, the financial investment of this particular contract is relatively minimal, and it is a short time commitment. Those are the only positives that I can take from this. As others have noted, Marquis is really not much better than Nick Blackburn, and he is in the mold of either a Blackburn or Carl Pavano (Could we call him a hybrid, a Pavburn, or Blackvano ???). He is a pitch-to-contact thrower with a somewhat high walk rate, and a career ERA of 4.55. In other words, he fits the Twins' mold, but certainly does not represent much of an improvement, at least in terms of ERA, over the Twins' starters' 2011 ERA of 4.64. If a stated goal of the offseason was to lower the staff ERA, this signing is unlikely to go a long way toward achieving that result, even though Marquis is presumably replacing Brian Duensing, who owned a 5.23 ERA last season.
Although I'm trying to remain positive this holiday season, the Marquis bargain basement signing sends a pretty strong message that the $100 million payroll is not exactly "soft," and that the starting rotation of Liriano, Baker, Pavano, Blackburn and Marquis is going to be the planned rotation (not necessarily in that order) in 2012. As a fan, this is tough to accept, given previous statements from the Twins that they were going to try to upgrade starting pitching this off-season. Clearly, the "upgrade" was from Duensing to Marquis. It's like trading a newish, crappy car for an older, crappy car: in the end you're still driving a crappy car.
So where does Nishioka fit into this? Well, the Twins are paying him $3 million this year, and it is generally assumed that, because Jamey Carroll is manning shortstop and Alexi Casilla is presumably the opening day second baseman, Nishioka will be a highly paid utility infielder. Others believe he may actually start the season at AAA Rochester so he can learn how to play American professional baseball. $3 million -- 3% of the Twins' 2012 payroll -- on a player that: 1) may not be on the opening day Twins' roster; and 2) even if he is on the Twins' roster, is unlikely to positively impact the team, is significant wasted money. Even if Nishioka is OK this season, paying 7 times the league minimum for a player that, in all likelihood wouldn't be worse than Brian Dozier or some AAA call-up, is damaging to the organization.
Imagine, instead, if the Twins didn't have Nishioka, and did have the extra money, which I approximate for the sake of argument at $2.5 million ($3 million minus $500,000 for a rookie infielder). That would have left $5.5 million for a starter, rather than $3 million (I'm assuming, maybe incorrectly, that the $3 million the Twins spent on Marquis represented close to the maximum that they wanted to spend on any starter). Clearly, the Twins could have been in negotiations for a better starting pitcher if they had nearly double the money to spend filling that role. Or, think of the quality relief arm/arms that the team could get for $5.5 million.
Now sure, I know that you can make this argument about any player that has failed completely to achieve even mediocre results -- and that every organization makes these mistakes at some point -- but Nishioka hurts now because his signing is still a recent memory, the dollars are not insignificant, he is still on the payroll for two more seasons, and the Twins apparently need every last dollar to put together a competitive team in 2012. As I have said before, I would love to be wrong about Nishioka, but I have a tough time thinking that anything has changed dramatically in the 3 months that have passed since Nishioka last donned a Twins uniform. For a team that still does not have an unlimited budget, every mistake hurts. It's one thing to spend $1 million on an aging veteran for 1 year, taking a chance that he has one more decent season left in him. Those deals fail pretty often, and that's part of baseball. It's another thing to make a multi-year commitment to a player that has failed, thus far, to demonstrate that he has discernible role at Target Field in 2012.
My Christmas wish is that Terry Ryan isn't done working on the pitching staff. This offense, if healthy, is going to score some runs because there are several players that are good at getting on base, and there are several players with the ability to drive in runs. The starting rotation, and the bullpen, both need help. Otherwise, I fear that we're going to see a lot of 10-8 Twins losses in 2012.