Sid Hartman: Corner positions should help ease Nishioka's loss

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2011 - 12:50 AM

Losing him will hurt, but the Twins are hoping to get a full season out of Justin Morneau and Danny Valencia.

The Twins made a big investment in second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka over the offseason, paying $5.3 million just for the rights to negotiate with him, then giving the Japanese infielder a $9.25 million contract.

But now their biggest offseason acquisition will be sidelined for possibly up to two months because of a broken leg suffered Thursday, when Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher ran into Nishioka trying to break up a potential double play during New York's 4-3 victory over the Twins at Yankee Stadium. The injury leaves some question marks in the middle of the Twins infield, with Alexi Casilla still not a proven everyday player at shortstop.

A year ago, the shortstop and second base positions were set at this point with the trade for shortstop J.J. Hardy from Milwaukee and the signing of veteran free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson. They also had longtime reserve Nick Punto to fill in as needed, as he had done capably throughout his Twins career.

But Hudson was allowed to leave as a free agent after the season, signing with San Diego. Hardy was traded to Baltimore to help clear the way for Nishioka's arrival, and Punto's $5 million option was not picked up, and he signed for St. Louis for a $750,000 deal. Punto underwent surgery for a sports hernia in February, and the Cardinals have not set a date for when he will be able to return.

However, a big plus for the Twins at this point is that at least the corner infield positions seem to be solidified. Last year, first baseman Justin Morneau was having an MVP-type season before suffering a concussion that ended his season in July after only 81 games. He was hitting .345 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI at the time. Then, over the second half of the season, rookie call-up Danny Valencia emerged as an outstanding third baseman at the plate and in the field. He hit .311 and with seven home runs and 40 RBI, with all but three RBI coming after the All-Star break.

The Twins essentially had each for only half of 2010, when they won the AL Central by six games. If Morneau and Valencia can stay healthy -- and if Morneau can hit like he did before he left the lineup and if Valencia can hit like he did after he joined it -- the Twins could overcome the second base and shortstop question marks.

Bud Grant's theory that athletic ability is important but durability is just as or more important has followed the Twins in recent years. Last season, they led the major leagues with 13 players spending time on the disabled list, including key players such as Morneau.

The injury to Nishioka is a terrible blow because the Twins expected so much from him, and they don't have anybody with equal ability and potential to replace him.

Fortunately, they have Luke Hughes available. He had a great spring and has hit .270 in 598 minor league games.

Hitting hurts vs. Yankees

In going 1-2 against the Yankees, the Twins are 3-13 against them since the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009. Hitting has been the Twins' biggest problem against New York, as they have hit .239 vs. the Yankees during this period.

Twins pitchers have posted a 4.72 ERA in 141 innings and allowed the Yankees to hit .269 against them.

The Yankees have also hit a home run in all but four of those 16 games and during that same span the Twins have left 128 on base while the Yankees have left 111.

Jottings

• A lot of the Gophers assistant men's basketball coaches were nervous last week while attending the NCAA tournament because they were concerned that coach Tubby Smith was going to take the Missouri job that was officially offered to him. ... Bucknell, which lost to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut in the round of 64 during this year's NCAA tournament, will be the Gophers' opening foe at home next year. The Bison are led by center Mike Muscala, the former Roseville athlete who was named Patriot League Player of the Year and honorable mention All-America as a sophomore this season. Assuming Muscala plays, it will be the third time in four years the Gophers play host to a nonconference game against a team that appeared in the previous season's NCAA tournament and is led by one or more Minnesotan. Last November, they opened the season against Wofford, which made back-to-back NCAA tournaments in 2010 and '11 with three Minnesotans leading the way in Braham's Isaiah Dahlman and DeLaSalle's Cameron Rundles and Jamar Diggs. In December 2008, the Gophers played Cornell, which won Ivy League titles in '08, '09 and '10 behind Eden Prairie standout Ryan Wittman. ... Blake Hoffarber scored eight points Wednesday night for his team in the Portsmouth Basketball tournament, where college seniors hoping for a pro career play in front of scouts.

• Gophers football coach Jerry Kill has talked on the phone for a long time with former maroon and gold coaches Lou Holtz and Tim Brewster and had a personal visit at the Bierman Building from Glen Mason. ... Every player from the current Gophers recruiting class will be in school in June.

• Michael Nowakowski, who operates local ticket broker Ticket King, reports that the cheapest tickets for Friday's Twins opener are being sold for $55, down from an original asking price of $100, adding that the market for Target Field games is not as hot as it was a year ago. Ticket King also made twice as much money this year on Timberwolves tickets as it did on Wild ones. Nowakowski also mentioned that the hottest Gophers football ticket is the North Dakota State game and that Ticket King had its lowest Gophers hockey ticket profit in 20 years.

• Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson is excited about the 2011-12 team, with only two seniors on the current team and a good recruiting class. And for the 2012-13 class, Robinson added what InterMat rates as the 11th overall junior in the nation, Brandon Kingsley of Apple Valley, a three-time state champion with a record of 170-6 with 127 pins. Brandon's brother Jordan will be a Gophers freshman this coming season.

• Ex-Gophers defenseman Nick Leddy had a goal and an assist for Chicago in Wednesday's 4-3 NHL victory over St. Louis. He has four goals and three assists in 44 games with the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. ... Shattuck-St. Mary's product Zach Parise might not play again this season for New Jersey after playing in his first game since Oct. 30 on Saturday. He had missed 65 games in a row because of a knee injury.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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