Turning Japanese

Earlier this offseason, the Twins were rumored to have been involved in the bid for Japanese RHP Hisashi Iwakuma. Ultimately, they lost the bid to the Oakland Athletics, which led to some fans calling the Twins cheap despite the fact that the A’s paid roughly $19 million just to negotiate with Iwakuma. Well, these fans shouldn’t complain any longer as it was announced today that the Twins won the bid for Japanese 2B/SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Without making any significant moves this offseason, the Twins would have entered 2011 with a middle infield of Alexi Casilla and J.J. Hardy. Not surprisingly, they felt that they could find at least one better player than either of these two, and currently that guy is Nishioka. This past season in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, Nishioka batted .346/.423/.482 with 22 stolen bases in 33 attempts. Unfortunately for the Twins, his 2010 season was by far a career best.

Ron Gardenhire has made it clear that he wanted to add more speed to the lineup, and if Nishioka replaces Hardy on the roster, then we can consider this goal completed. He’s probably just a little faster than Orlando Hudson, and the 33 stolen base attempts definitely suggests that the Twins can afford to be more aggressive on the basepaths with Nishioka.

As for his defense, I think Nishioka will be just fine. It won’t be anything spectacular, and he does have an average-ish arm which will likely make him shift over to second base, but I doubt he’ll do anything that makes us wish for the return of Hudson. His move to second will also temporarily allow the Twins to consider keeping Hardy at shortstop (it appears that the Twins will indeed offer him arbitration), unless they find a trade suitor for him.

If there’s one thing that worries me, it’s that Twins fans will look at Nishioka’s outstanding 2010 season for Chiba Lotte and some will expect him to hit .290 or better with at least 25 steals. I wasn’t too surprised to see the Twins win the bid, but I was surprised that they only bid $5.3 million. That seems awfully low, and I think it shows how little other teams thought of Nishioka despite the thin free agent market for middle infielders. I’d expect Nishioka to bat around .270 with about 15 steals, which would be a little disappointing, but I find that to be a perfectly reasonable expectation.

If I was Bill Smith, I would keep J.J. Hardy at shortstop and I would make Nishioka the starting second baseman, with Alexi Casilla sitting on the bench as the backup infielder. However, as I mentioned above, Hardy’s contract and the lack of middle infield options for other teams could make Hardy an attractive trade target for other teams (the Baltimore Orioles have already expressed interest in Hardy).

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Another move the Twins made Friday was outrighting SS Estarlin De Los Santos to Triple-A Rochester, a move that I suggested in my offseason blueprint. The Twins didn’t need to make a move to accommodate Tsuyoshi Nishioka on the 40-man roster (there was 38 players on the 40-man roster prior to removing De Los Santos) but it makes sense as he hit very poorly in 2010 and was a surprising addition to the 40-man roster prior to this past season anyway.

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