FORT MYERS, FLA. - Goodbye, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Hello, Brian Dozier.
That was the vibe at Twins camp Monday, as the team optioned Nishioka to Class AAA Rochester -- despite all the money he's making -- while acknowledging that rookie Brian Dozier has a legitimate chance to make the team.
Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said Nishioka's demotion "has nothing to do with Dozier," and technically that's true. Dozier could unseat Jamey Carroll as the starting shortstop, and Nishioka looked so frazzled this spring, the Twins decided he wasn't even ready to be a utility player.
The best option moving forward might have Dozier at shortstop with Carroll back in a utility role, where he's flourished for years. The Twins want a reliable defender who can play shortstop in their utility spot, and Nishioka just wasn't up to it.
That speaks volumes about how misguided the Twins were to invest $14.6 million in Nishioka heading into last season. In 12 months, he has gone from international superstar to minor league reclamation project.
"It's definitely tough to swallow, but it's not like I'm getting baseball taken away from me," Nishioka said through translator Ryo Shinkawa. "I came from Japan to challenge in this country, and I'm just going to not give up and look for an opportunity to be back up."
Nishioka, 27, made a series of defensive miscues early in camp and batted .240 (6-for-25) in nine Grapefruit League games. He will play both second base and shortstop at Rochester. Nishioka said his goals are "to slow the game down and to be back to my old self, like I was playing in Japan."
In 2010, he won a Gold Glove and a batting title, leading the Chiba Lotte Marines to the Nippon Professional Baseball title. The Twins won the bidding for his services, paying a $5.3 million posting fee to Chiba Lotte and signing Nishioka to a three-year, $9.25 million contract with an option for 2014.
He opened last season as the starting second baseman but suffered a broken left fibula in the season's sixth game on a takeout slide by the Yankees' Nick Swisher. Nishioka returned in mid-June but struggled, batting .226 with a .278 on-base percentage.
The Twins repeatedly told Nishioka he was coming to camp with a clean slate, but he looked more nervous this spring, not less.
"Everything he does right now looks like it's work, and this is a game," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've got to get him back to enjoying it. I told him, 'We'll get you down there, maybe relax a little bit and just play the game. Get a smile back on your face and play.' "
Ryan said he made the move 16 days before camp ends "to let people get organized, especially [Nishioka]. Now he's got another transition. So we're going to see what we can do to help him along, and he'll be down there with our infield instructor [Class AAA manager] Gene Glynn, which is going to be a good thing."
Since Nishioka's contract is guaranteed, he will make $3 million this year, even if he spends all of it in Rochester. It wouldn't be the first time a team has sunk big money in a player no longer on the major league roster. The Twins did this in recent years with Mike Lamb and Brendan Harris. The Yankees gave Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa a five-year, $20 million contract and watched him spend most of that time at Class AAA. Last year, Atlanta's Kenshin Kawakami made $7.3 million for a season spent mostly at Class AA.
"We make mistakes all the time," Ryan said. "I'm not saying this is a mistake because he's down at Triple-A. And we're going to end up seeing if we can get [him] resurrected and get him back up here."
Meanwhile, Ryan acknowledged the Twins might have to look outside the organization for a utility player. One potential fit is Tampa Bay's Elliot Johnson, who is out of minor league options and stuck in a potential logjam behind Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac.
Besides combing the waiver wire, the Twins could just speed up Dozier's timetable. Ryan said he wouldn't want Dozier to serve as a major league utility player now, but didn't rule out a starting spot. Dozier hasn't played above Class AA, so it would be a rare move for the Twins, but among their players who have leaped from that level to the majors are Joe Mauer, Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Erickson.
"That's not going to scare us off," Ryan said. "If [Dozier] looks like he's mature enough -- or any of these guys. We've taken a lot of players out of Double-A."
Nishioka is one step higher, but in his case Triple-A seems a long way from the majors.
"It's going to be interesting to see how he reacts down there," Ryan said. "He might take off. I hope he does. As everybody knows, we've got a big investment in him."