The Twins wanted more speed, athleticism and reliability in their middle infield this season. They penciled in Alexi Casilla to start at one spot, and their search for a double-play partner took them to the Far East.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a heralded shortstop for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He was a batting champion, Gold Glove winner and leader of a team that had just won the Japan Series. And, at age 26, his best years seemed to be ahead of him. The Twins believed he was the perfect player to help them achieve goal of becoming a championship contender.
With one month left in Nishioka's first season in the majors, it looks as if the Twins made a major mistake. The club spent $5.3 million in a posting fee and $3 million in salary this season, only to find out the hole at short is as big as it has been in decades.
"He's got a long way to go to become an average major league shortstop," said MLB Network analyst Larry Bowa, a former All-Star and Gold Glove-winning shortstop. "I'm just telling you what I'm seeing with the naked eye -- he's a utility player, at best, for me."
Nishioka has been overmatched at the plate and unsure of himself in the field. His speed appears to have been sapped some by a broken left leg suffered in the sixth game of the season.
The statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) tries to determine a player's total contribution to a team. Nishioka's WAR is minus-1.4. According to fangraphs.com, he is ranked 865th of 868 players who have played in the majors this year.
The plan coming out of spring training was for Nishioka to play second base. But after the Yankees' Nick Swisher broke Nishioka's leg on a take-out slide April 7, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire decided to move him to short. His arm isn't as strong as that of other shortstops, and he's not used to making backhanded stops because that's not how players in Japan are taught.
Bottom line, he has botched numerous plays that have cost the Twins outs.
Nishioka enters Friday's series opener against the Los Angeles Angels batting .221 with no home runs and 19 RBI. He has a .267 on-base percentage and .245 slugging percentage.
"I think Gardy has been really patient with me this season," Nishioka said through an interpreter, "and if I was the manager I would have probably sent myself down."
The plan for 2012
The Twins plan to bring Nishioka back next season. He is scheduled to make $3 million both next year and in 2013, and there's a $4 million option for 2014 with a $250,000 buyout.
Twins General Manager Bill Smith laid out many factors that he said contributed to Nishioka's rough season: adjusting to a new league and a different culture; not knowing the pitchers; and worrying about his wife, who was pregnant when the season started and has since delivered their first child. And the 59 games he missed after breaking his leg.
"He's a proud man. He's a proud player," Smith said. "He's going to do all he can to come back next year and get off to a good start and be a productive player for the Twins."
Basically, the Twins want him to be the kind of player they expected from their scouting reports. Howard Norsetter, Twins international scouting coordinator, first saw him play in 2005. Between then and last offseason, six Twins scouts watched Nishioka. When major league teams found out Nishioka was going to be available last year, the Twins did more homework, contacting coaches and others familiar with him.
They believe in their reports, so it doesn't appear any of their scouts are going to walk the plank over the decision to sign Nishioka.
"Anything we say is going to sound defensive," said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president in charge of player personnel. "We expect him to be better next year."
Nishioka said he knows what's on the line in 2012. "I feel like I need to put up results next year," he said. "If I don't, I feel like I won't have a spot at this level."
In May, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was sent to Florida to work on middle infield play with Nishioka after he had recovered enough from the broken leg to begin activities. The Twins' season already was on its way to being a disaster, and Nishioka felt responsible for getting hurt and being unable to help the team.
"He really wanted to go over and over and over about how he could have done things differently," Molitor said, "and what he could have done to have a different outcome as far as that particular play."
Nishioka batted .267 in August after hitting only .213 in the months before.
One thing that has encouraged the Twins is that Nishioka looks better the second time facing tough pitchers. On Aug. 12 in Cleveland, he had two RBI singles off righthander Justin Masterson, one on a 93-miles-per-hour pitch that he pulled to right. On Monday, he singled and drew two walks off Chicago lefthander Mark Buehrle.
But defensively, Nishioka seems lost. He experienced his low point in that Aug. 12 game in Cleveland, when he misplayed three ground balls in the sixth inning, leading to a run in what ended up as a 3-2 loss. Twins starter Carl Pavano was so frustrated he slammed a water cooler in the dugout after the inning.
On Monday, Nishioka's swipe tag at second missed White Sox basestealer Dayan Viciedo. Completely.
"The speed of the game is quicker here than it is in Japan, no question," Bowa said. "Pitching is much better here than in Japan. You don't want to throw a guy under a bus, but I'm really disappointed in what I have seen. ... The games I've watched him play, nothing jumped out at me like, 'Wow, look at that arm. Wow, look at that bat speed. Wow, look at the great eye, look at that great at-bat.' Nothing really jumped out at me."
Can Nishioka turn things around? Gardenhire plans to have Nishioka compete for the starting shortstop job next spring, probably with Trevor Plouffe.
"I expect Nishi to be better," Gardenhire said. "After a year here, I'm assuming that. We'll see this last month how he does, and I expect him to be a better player. This last month is a big month for him."