"[...] re-upping with Hardy eats up a large portion of the off-season money the Twins have to spend, but as I've tried to lay out here, Hardy is the most important one to re-sign given his positional significance coupled with the potential difficulties of replacing him."
I wrote that on October 25th, 2010 and by now all of us are painfully familiar with what happened shortly thereafter. The Twins watched Orlando Hudson walk via free-agency. They traded Hardy to the Orioles for two less-than-mediocre relief "prospects", and they put all of their eggs into the Tsuyoshi Nishioka basket, paying the $5M posting fee to negotiate with the Japanese shortstop and ultimately signing him to a 3-year, $9M contract. Leading up to Spring Training, there was a lot of talk about how Yoshi would transition to Major League Baseball. Many of us bloggers actually managed to convince ourselves that a Nishioka-Casilla middle-infield battery would be pretty decent, at least defensively. Oh how I wish we had been right.
In February, I penned another piece that was inspired by something Phil Mackey had written about the number of Japanese players who had come over the the U.S. and had successful MLB careers. After reading that list I did some research, the results of which you can read here. At the risk of quoting myself too many times in my own piece, here was my conclusion.
I also wrote (last self-quote, I promise):
"I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but the track record is undeniable. Aside from Ichiro, who possessed superior hitting and fielding skills prior to coming to the U.S., and Hideki Matsui, who was as great of a power hitter as Japan has ever seen, the overall crop of Japanese players has been disappointing. What's really scary to me is that some of these guys were .300+ hitters in Japan (K. Matsui, Iguchi, Iwamura) and couldn't crack .275 over here...Nishioka was only a .293 hitter in Japan (.287 career average before an unusually good 2010 seasons). Nishioka also didn't have much power in Japan (career .426 SLG%), though he is only 25, so he could develop that as he goes along. I hope it works out for young Nishi, but history suggests the road will be a tough one."
I also wrote (last self-quote, I promise):
"[...] aside from Ichiro, none of the players I covered won a Gold Glove in the U.S. despite the fact that a few of them won the award multiple times in Japan."
I know that Nishioka has only played in 19 Major League games for the Twins. I know this (sample-size alert!!). I also know that the bulk of those games have been after an extended absence due to a broken leg and that perhaps he is simply quite rusty from the long layoff. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for awhile. That said, history is not in Nishioka's favor and at some point, one runs out of excuses. What started out as an interesting departure from the norm for the Twins could prove to be one of their more ill-advised personnel decisions of the last decade. As Gleeman pointed out in his column today, JJ Hardy is hitting .307/.369/.547 with 11HRs and only 1 error in 50 games this season for the Orioles, while Nishioka has committed 6 errors in 19 total games (between 2B & SS) while hitting .197/.254/.242.
Nishioka deserves more time before being labeled a 'bust', probably the entirety of a season...but my hopes for him have never been high and he's done nothing so far to change my mind. Don't get me wrong, I love his attitude, I love that he really seems to care about what the fans think of him and I love his work ethic. That said, I fear that the Twins are blinded by the investment they've made in the 26-year-old to the point where they are probably unwilling to do the one thing that would help Nishioka out more than anything: send him down to Triple-A for awhile. A minor league assignment would take the pressure off of him and give him a chance to further-grasp the unique aspects of baseball on this side of the Pacific. If the Twins are going to make a move like that, the time would be now. If you wait any longer, you're too far into his contract. If you're Bill Smith and you decide that this season is a bust, why not try to develop him a little bit, re-tool the team in the off-season, and come back next year with guns blazing? It just makes sense.