La Velle E. Neal III has covered baseball for the Star Tribune since 1998 (the post-Knoblauch era). Born and raised in Chicago, he grew up following the White Sox and hating the Cubs. He attended both the University of Illinois and Illinois-Chicago and began his baseball writing career at the Kansas City Star. He can be heard occasionally on KFAN radio, lending his great baseball mind to Paul Allen and other hosts. Mark Rosen borrows him occasionally for WCCO-TV.
The Tsuyoshi Nishioka era is over.
After two grossly underwhelming seasons, the Japanese infielder has asked for, and has been granted, a release from his contract.
Officially, Nishioka has been granted an unconditional release.
"I would like to thank the Twins organization for helping me fulfill my dream of playing in Major League Baseball. I take full responsibility for my performance which was below my own expectations," Nishioka said in a statement. " At this time, I have made the decision that it is time to part ways. I have no regrets and know that only through struggle can a person grow stronger. I appreciate all the support the team and the fans in Minnesota and Rochester have shown me.
Nishioka can go back to Japan, where teams like the Seibu Lions and Hanshin Tigers might be in the market for a shortstop. The Twins won't have to pay Nishioka the $3 million salary he's due in 2013 or the $250,000 buyout after that season.
(I got a trip at the park on Wednesday about Nishioka, which led to a notebook item here.)
According to the Beverly Hills Sports Council, the group that represents Nishioka, the player is extremely disappointed in how he has played in two seasons and didn't want to go through another year as a minor league player making a major league salary.
Indications are that his agents advised him against this strategy, but Nishioka was firm in his belief that it was time for a change. He can return to Japan and try to resurrect his career.
In 71 games, including three this year, Nishioka batted .215 with no home runs and 20 RBI. His defense was.....awful.
The Twins traded J.J. Hardy to Baltimore following the 2010 season and decided to make a play for Nishioka, who had just won a batting title and a Gold Glove award for the Chiba Lotte Marines. The Twins agreed to a $5.3 million transfer fee, then signed Nishioka to a three-year, $9.25 million contract with an option for 2014.
At 26, Nishioka was hitting his prime, and he was ready for the jump to the majors. One problem: No Japanese middle infielder has made it big in Major League Baseball.
The Twins watched Nishioka during spring training, and decided to try him at second base. That allowed Alexi Casilla, who has better range and a stronger arm, to start at short. But Nishioka, in his sixth game, suffered a broken leg when the Yankees' Nick Swisher took him out during a double play attempt.
Nishioka missed 60 games, and never recovered. He didn't seem to have the same speed he had before the injury, and missed out on time to get to know the league and its pitchers. It was a huge setback.
It told a lot about Nishioka at the time. The Twins mentioned to him in spring training that he would have to clear the bag during double plays or get killed, but he never changed. While recovering from his broken leg, Nishioka worked on second base play with Paul Molitor but that led to minimal improvement.
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who managed Nishioka in Japan, said he warned Nishi about the adjustments he needed to make to the MLB style of play. Nishi never adapted. That type of contact doesn't happen in Japan.
"He played second base and broke his leg,'' Valentine said in March. "I came to Fort Myers last year to have dinner with him to tell him they're going to try to break his legs and tried to show him how to get out of the way because he didn't do that in Japan."
"When a guy comes inside and rolls, he had to be out of the way. He gave me the old, 'Ya,ya,ya, work harder, work harder. I understand, I understand.' He broke his leg.''
Nishioka came to spring training this year with no chance to make the team and was sent to the minors. He hit 258 in 101 games at Class AAA Rochester, and the coaching staff spoke favorably enough of him that the Twins called him up in August. But the Twins didn't see any improvement. After three games in Cleveland, Nishioka rode the bench during a weekend series against Tampa Bay and was sent back to Rochester. A little over a week later, he was taken off the 40-man roster as the Twins made room for September callups.
It will likely be the last time Nishioka will be seen in a major league uniform.
Give Nishioka credit, though. Instead of going through another season in the minors, he's giving up guaranteed money to return to Japan and get his career back on track.
For the Twins, it will go down as a bad baseball decision. Hardy has hit 51 home runs in two seasons since the Twins dumped him.
Yes, a very bad baseball decision.
Winter ball is underway throughout the Caribbean, and Twins players and prospects are sprinkled throughout the leagues. Here's an updated list, courtesy of the Twins:
It's a good move for players like Joe Benson and Rene Tosoni, who are trying to advance their careers. The Twins would like to see more of their players work on their games during winter ball, but it's up to the player. This list will change throughout the offseason. Some players play during the first half of the season then shut it down. Others will join teams for the second half. Someone like righthander Anthony Slama, for example, is looking for a team and could head somewhere for a few innings.
Liriano isn't expected to pitch a lot. If I remember correctly, he mentioned to me last month he wanted to throw 25-30 innings. The Twins,cautious about his workload, banned Liriano from pitching in winter ball last year. He threw on the side on his own and ended up with shoulder problems early in spring training. Liriano pitched very well in winter ball before the 2010 season and went 13-10 during the regular season.
If you want to keep up with winter league action,here's a link to MLB's Caribbean Leagues website.
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