Infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka reported for practice at a field near Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. The Twins’ first full-squad workout is Friday.
Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune
Souhan: Nishioka faces critical year, smaller role on team
- Article by: JIM SOUHAN
- Star Tribune
- February 24, 2012 - 6:56 AM
Tsuyoshi Nishioka arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., last spring fresh off a spectacular season in Japan, months after the Twins paid more than $5 million for the right to negotiate with him. Before official workouts began, he wore garish Adidas garb instead of blue-and-gray Twins togs, and strutted around the complex accompanied by a translator and large group of Japanese media.
This spring, Nishioka is blending in. Which is a shame.
Last year, the Twins thought they were getting a star. This year, they're hoping Nishioka can become the next Matt Tolbert.
In 2011, Nishioka might have been the worst everyday player in baseball. The Twins are fixing that problem by promising not to play him every day.
They can't even be sure he'll make the team, although General Manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire say Nishioka theoretically possesses all the attributes of a good utility player.
"He's got to show people that he can get the job done," Ryan said. "He should be able to make this club. We just want him to do his job. Pick the ball up, get the routine out, don't extend innings. Last year we extended innings terribly. Our pitchers, before you knew it, they were facing five and six-out innings.
"We're not asking him to do anything we won't ask anyone else to do who plays that position."
Last spring, the Twins expected more, expected him to hit for average, steal bases, handle the bat and field like a pro. The nicest thing anyone can say about Nishioka this spring is that, if he can perform competently, he fits the profile of a utility player.
He can play shortstop or second base, and will take grounders at third base this spring. He's a switch hitter. He runs well, although he used his speed last year mostly to chase down his own errors.
Nishioka performed so poorly last season that the Twins signed Jamey Carroll, who would be a utility player on a better-stocked team, to become their starting shortstop, and gave the starting second base job to Alexi Casilla, who failed to hold onto the starting shortstop job last year.
Nishioka's OPS (combined slugging percentage and on-base percentage) last season was .527. The worst OPS among players who qualified for the batting title was the .613 posted by the White Sox's Alex Rios.
Nishioka was thrown out on four of his six attempted steals. He made 12 errors while compiling a .961 fielding percentage and also frequently failing to set up properly for cutoff throws.
In all, Nishioka made Nick Punto, the whipping boy of Twins fans, look like Honus Wagner.
Nishioka seems to understand how badly he flopped. Thursday morning, Nishioka, through his translator, offered a phrase that could have been an admission.
Will he be better?
"That's why I came back to challenge this year again," he said through his translator. "And if I don't put up numbers again this year, it might be better to throw it all out."
What does that mean?
"There's no really deep, deep meaning to it," Nishioka said through his translator.
Or there is a deep meaning to it: Nishioka could bail out on the third year of his contract and stay in Japan next season if he flops again.
"The previous year, winning the championship in Japan and with the posting system, everything was kind of in chaos," Nishioka said. "This year I think I was able to go back to Japan in October and kind of relax a little bit, and regroup and kind of get ready for this season."
He said he worked mostly on lower-body strength and core muscles. His legs look thicker, but his upper body remains slight.
"We're not looking at him any different than we did last spring," Gardenhire said. "We're looking for a person to do a job that he's signed on to do."
That's nice but not true. The Twins signed Nishioka to be a starting middle infielder for three years. He's no longer a starter, and neither he nor the Twins know whether he'll be back for a third year.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • email@example.com
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