The Twins yesterday secured exclusive negotiation rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka with a winning bid of $5.3 million. This allows them 30 days to reach a contract with Nishioka, and Joe Christensen states that "the Twins should have little trouble closing the deal." Suddenly, it seems certain that Target Field will be welcoming a very new dynamic in the 2011 season.
Nishioka was a breakout star in Japan's Pacific League this past year, capturing the batting title with a .346 average while posting a .423 on-base percentage and 51 extra-base hits for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He's only 26 -- younger than most players who transfer over from Japan -- so the Twins are hoping the strides taken this past season will stick, with Nishioka's prime years still ahead of him.
The switch-hitting Nishioka has developed into a well recognized star in Japan. He was featured in an Adidas "Impossible is Nothing" commercial, in which he states that his goal is for everyone in the world to recognize him as the best shortstop. (Though it's been said he could shift over to second for the Twins, who may not trust his ability to field the position at the highest level.)
From where I stand, this could possibly be a very good move or a very questionable move in terms of how much it helps the team. It's just impossible to make any judgments without more information -- specifically, what Nishioka's contract will look like and whether it will mean the end of J.J. Hardy.
The Twins seem determined to give Alexi Casilla a chance next year, and the notion of a Casilla/Nishioka middle infield carries more question marks than I'm comfortable with. Even in an injury-marred 2010 season, Hardy was always a very competent starter when available. It's important to note that -- despite his stardom in Japan -- there's no guarantee Nishioka will stand out here in the States. (See: Matsui, Kazuo.)
We'll learn more about how this move fits into a bigger plan over the next few weeks, and in due time we can give it the in-depth analysis it deserves. But, in isolation, you've got to love the message that is being sent. The Twins are flexing their financial muscle, outbidding a number of clubs including the Red Sox, who reportedly had a bid "in the mid-$2 million range." This comes just one year after the Twins stole away coveted Latin prospect Miguel Sano with a $3.15 million bonus.
These are, literally, the exact types of aggressive moves I'd hoped to see in the new stadium era. Twins fans once would never have dreamed of seeing their club outbid all others in the expensive pursuit of premium international talent, but now it's happening. This coincides with increased spending in the draft and drastic payroll expansion (there's some talk that the Twins' payroll could balloon to $125 million next year, which would be an increase of about $60 million from Opening Day 2009).
We'll grade out the apparently imminent Nishioka signing when it becomes clear how he fits into the team's plans for 2011. For now, we know that the Twins are probably committing at least $10-15 million to bringing over one of the Pacific League's premier young stars, a move that will instantly make them one of the most popular teams in Japan while bringing a new international flavor to baseball in Minneapolis.