The Minnesota Twins are near finalizing a contract with second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka, formerly of the Japanese League's Chiba Lotte Marines, according to reports. Nishioka becomes the overwhelming favorite to start at second base for Minnesota in 2011, and his arrival likely signals the end of Orlando Hudson's brief tenure in the Twin Cities. The three-year pact is thought to be worth roughly $10 million in guaranteed money, with a (presumably player-friendly) option for 2014.
Nishioka, 26, won the batting title in Japan's Pacific League this season, and led the league in both runs (121) and total bases (287). He hits for modest power, thanks in large part to his small frame, but he runs the bases very well and can defend either middle infield position with aplomb.
The knock on Nishioka has long been his somewhat lacking durability: He led the league by playing in 144 games this season, but had never eclipsed 130 games or 494 at-bats in previous years. Neck, knee and hamstring injuries have bothered Nishioka throughout his career, and his ability to hold up over a longer season against bigger and stronger players may be fairly called into question.
Still, this move looks like a fantastic one for the Twins. Nishioka will be moved primarily to second base, though he was considered one of Japan's elite defensive shortstops as well as playing second during his career there. Of course, a second baseman who can slide over to short in case of a pressing need is a handy commodity in and of itself. Nishioka is younger than most Japanese transplants are when they arrive in the States, so he has the potential to improve significantly with time and to continue playing in his speed-oriented, athletic and graceful style.
Does Nishioka's signing make the Twins the favorites in the AL Central in 2011?
Nishioka also fits the Twins' greatest need to a tee: He can hit second comfortably, and add speed to the middle infield. That, GM Bill Smith said, was the primary impetus for the team's recent decision to trade incumbent shortstop J.J. Hardy, so Nishioka's arrival seems to have been a foregone conclusion within the organization's inner sanctum.
Nishioka also plays stellar defense, an imperative for Minnesota with its contact-oriented pitching philosophy and the team's pitchers' ground-ball proclivity. Finally, Nishioka adds on-base percentage and speed to a team that manufactured only 170 runs in 2010 (according to the Bill James Handbook), the fewest in several years for Minnesota.
After the rival Chicago White Sox added Adam Dunn, retained Paul Konerko and coaxed Jesse Crain away from the Twins via free agency, Minnesota needed this signing to keep pace. Which team should be favored in the AL Central in 2011 is an open question, but Minnesota's addition of Nishioka ensures that their defense and fundamentals will continue to outstrip Chicago's. If the team is able to re-sign Carl Pavano, as many expect, they could well be the better team come Opening Day.
Considering the usual costs associated with the posting system, then, and considering the benefit they derive from the deal, the Twins also got Nishioka at a bargain rate: $5 million to the Marines, plus the base salary for Nishioka, which averages out to a bit more than $3.3 million. Add it all up, and the team has found a terrific way to keep its costs down while improving the top of its batting order and the strength of its middle infield.