November 26, 2010

Twins win negotiating rights to Tsuyoshi Nishioka with $5 million bid

Earlier this month, when the Twins announced plans to increase their payroll even further next year after blowing away the previous franchise record with more than $100 million in salaries this year, I wrote that "getting into the $115 million range would complete the transition from small-payroll team to large-payroll team" and "maintaining a top-10 payroll in the future would mean adopting a new view of roster management and free agency involvement."

And then I didn't even take my own advice.

When various national and local reports began to link the Twins to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka my assumption was that they had little chance of actually submitting the high bid for his exclusive negotiating rights. Since when do the Twins throw around money for free agents, let alone free agents from Japan who literally require out-bidding every other MLB team? Since now, apparently.

By submitting a high bid believed to be about $5 million to Nishioka's team in Japan, the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Twins have acquired exclusive negotiating rights to the 26-year-old middle infielder. That gives them 30 days to work out a separate deal with Nishioka, at which point the $5 million bid will be refunded to the Twins if the two sides can't reach an agreement and he'll be ineligible to play in the majors until going through the same process next offseason.

Japanese players who previously joined MLB teams through the "posting" process typically got contracts that were close to the same amount as the high bid for their negotiating rights. For example, the Red Sox bid $51 million to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka and then inked him to a six-year, $52 million contract. Going back even further, the Mariners bid $13 million to talk to Ichiro Suzuki and then signed him for $14 million.

Kazuhisa Ishii, Kei Igawa, and Akinori Iwamura also had similarly even bid/contract splits via the posting process, and Iwamura is perhaps the most comparable to Nishioka. Tampa Bay bid $4.5 million to get Iwamura's negotiating rights from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in November of 2006 and signed him to a three-year, $7.7 million contract. Based on those precedents and initial reports of Nishioka's asking price, a three-year deal for around $9 million seems likely.

As for what type of player the Twins are now trying to sign ... well, that's difficult to say with any kind of certainty. Nishioka won the batting title this year by hitting .346 and notched 206 hits in a 144-game season for the most by any player since Suzuki in 1994. However, he came into the year as a career .280 hitter in six previous seasons and batted just .260 in 2009. He also has limited power, with a career-high of 14 homers and just 11 in 596 at-bats this year.

No doubt one reason why the Twins pursued Nishioka is that they wanted to add speed to the lineup after becoming more of a station-to-station team in recent years. Whether or not that makes sense is up for debate, as the Twins' offense during the past three seasons has been better than it was since the early 1990s, but Ron Gardenhire has repeatedly singled out the middle infield as a spot to add that speed.

Nishioka has averaged 28 stolen bases a season, including 22 this year, so he certainly would bring significantly more speed to the lineup than J.J. Hardy or Orlando Hudson. On the other hand his career success rate on the bases is a poor 72 percent, which is below the standard break-even point where attempting steals is actually beneficial to a team, and Nishioka's raw speed is considered merely good rather than elite like Suzuki or Iwamura.

Defensively he's won the Japanese equivalent of a Gold Glove award three times, receiving the honor as both a shortstop and second baseman. However, some reports have questioned his ability to play shortstop full time in the big leagues and the only previous Japanese shortstop to sign with an MLB team, Kaz Matsui, was a four-time Gold Glove winner in Japan and proved to be shaky enough at the position that he quickly moved to second base.

Matsui's disappointing seven-year run in the majors also provides some reason to be skeptical of Nishioka's offensive upside. Even in winning the batting title with a .346 average Nishioka's overall numbers this year pale in comparison to Matsui's gaudy production in Japan. Nishioka posted a .905 OPS this season and has a .790 OPS for his career. Matsui averaged a .920 OPS during his final five seasons in Japan, batting .320 with 25 homers and 25 steals per year.

Nishioka's career-year is basically what Matsui did every year, and Matsui ended up hitting just .267 with a .321 on-base percentage and .380 slugging percentage in the majors. Obviously it's not fair to assume Nishioka will follow in Matsui's footsteps just because they're from the same country, particularly since guys like Suzuki and Hideki Matsui thrived here, but as of now there's no precedent for a Japanese shortstop thriving offensively or defensively in MLB.

Power hitting in Japan hasn't translated to MLB, with Kaz Matsui perhaps the most prominent example of someone who went from a slugger there to a slap-hitter here. Prior to a crippling knee injury Iwamura was a nice top-of-the-order bat for the Rays, using his speed to rack up infield hits while getting on base at a .355 clip, but he was actually a 40-homer guy in Japan. Nishioka is unique in that his power in Japan hasn't even been impressive.

Nishioka is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .346/.423/.482, but as a 26-year-old career .293/.364/.421 hitter any attempts to project MLB performance that take into account pre-2010 production in Japan aren't going to be very kind. Going from Japan to MLB has turned middle-of-the-order monsters into bottom-of-the-order slappers, so Nishioka's already modest power may prove to be nearly non-existent.

With that said, if he can maintain a batting average around .275 and get on base at a decent clip after showing solid plate discipline and contact skills in Japan he'd still be a decent-hitting middle infielder, and if that comes with good defense a total investment of approximately $14 million for three seasons could certainly be worthwhile. Nearly everything about Nishioka boils down to an educated-guessing game, but his defense in particular is a huge key.

If he can stick at shortstop and/or be a major asset at second base Nishioka looks like a solid player, although how exactly he fits into the Twins' plans for 2011 is unclear. Hudson is still in the picture for now after the Twins offered him arbitration Tuesday, but that was reportedly only done because the two sides have a behind-the-scenes agreement that he will decline the offer before almost surely signing elsewhere.

Alexi Casilla is the obvious replacement for Hudson at second base, but he could also move to shortstop if the Twins can sign Nishioka and view him more as a second baseman. And then of course there's Hardy, who must be tendered a contract by early next week if the Twins want to retain his 2011 rights. They're likely to do that regardless of whether they plan to actually keep Hardy, as multiple teams have reportedly expressed interest in trading for him.

My best guess right now is that the Twins will tender Hardy a contract and retain him until the Nishioka negotiations are resolved one way or another, ultimately trading Hardy if they're able to sign Nishioka and keeping Hardy as the starting shortstop if they aren't. Keeping both guys is perhaps also an option, and Hardy at shortstop with Nishioka at second base and Casilla as the utility man would likely be the best-case scenario from a strictly on-field standpoint.

Unfortunately the Twins appear to have soured somewhat on Hardy despite his being above-average for a shortstop this year and it seems unlikely they'd have room in the budget--even a souped-up version--to keep Hardy for around $7 million after committing $14 million or so to Nishioka. I'd prefer to see a Hardy-Nishioka middle infield with Casilla in a bench role, but right now I'd bet on a Nishioka-Casilla middle infield with Hardy being dealt for bullpen help.

24 Comments »

  1. I don’t understand what they have against Hardy, when healthy, he was good to very good. I also don’t understand the obsession with speed. Does speed beat great pitching as easily as power?

    I am impressed that they identified this guy, and then went out and bid the most. Let’s hope they are right about his ability to hit and run and field.

    I will be disappointed if Casilla is projected as a starter next year. I will be happy (I hope) if this guy and Hardy are the starters.

    Comment by mike wants wins — November 26, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

  2. I think they view Hardy as their best trade asset, that’s why they are so intent on trying to move him. I loved watching Hardy play at short, but I believe that Plouffe has a chance to be a long term answer. I’m anxious to see how the infield plays out.

    Comment by Scott — November 26, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

  3. Plouffe is NOT a long term answer at SS, I’m guessing the Twins feel that way too, otherwise they wouldn’t have gone after Nishioka.

    Comment by Asita — November 26, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  4. i just did the cotts math with Nishioka making 3 million a year and a thome sighning of 4 million the twins are about 12 million over last years payroll( and this is without hardys contract). add little nicky puntos 2 million, because you just know gardy is going to want him back to back up a casilla-nishioka infield and whatever bullpen help they get for trady hardy (lets say 3 million)
    that comes to 17 million more than last year. which according to cots was 97 million. 114 million seems about right

    Comment by bcn twins fan — November 26, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  5. if you do the math keeping hardy puts the twins over 120 million. and that aint happening folks. hardys a goner

    Comment by bcn twins fan — November 26, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

  6. To bcn Twins fan. If they were going to sign Punto to a 2 million deal and get a bullpen guy for 3 million, well why not just keep Hardy for the 6-7 million he’ll cost.

    Comment by halfchest — November 26, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

  7. halfcast, because they HATE the bullpen being filled with guys making the minimum. They’d rather overpay for veteran presence and “closers” in the bullpen, and underpay for 2B or SS (Casilla/Punto/Plouffe). It is 100% backwards, imo.

    Comment by mike wants wins — November 26, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

  8. try and come up with a 7 man bullpen. i can only come up with 6 and thats with nathan who isnt a given. thats also counting burntett and slama. the twins needed to cut salary and the only places they could do it was in the bullpen (even though nathan and capps are making 18 million between them) and the middle infield. go to cots and crunch the numbers. without signing anyone they are 5 million over last years payroll

    Comment by bcn twins fan — November 26, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  9. thats without hardy, by the way

    Comment by bcn twins fan — November 26, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  10. Confusion on two points:

    (1) Doesn’t Hudson have a clause in his contract that says the Twins can’t receive compensatory picks if he signs elsewhere?

    (2) And if there is no such clause, why would Hudson (or any player) agree ahead of time to decline arbitration? Wouldn’t that only serve to diminish his market value (because of the compensatory picks)?

    Comment by Knobs — November 26, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

  11. Knobs-
    Hudson had a clause in his contract that he could not be offered arbitration if he was a Type A free agent. He is a Type B free agent.

    By being a Type B free agent, the team that ends up signing him does not have to give any picks to the Twins. The Twins would get a supplemental pick.

    I don’t think it has any affect on Hudson at all, free agency-wise, because the team that signs him gets him and that’s that. If he believes he can’t make more than what he feels he’ll get in arbitration then there is a risk that he will accept and get at least five million next year with the Twins.

    That’s really the only risk with the Type B’s. The team offering arbitration has to be prepared for the possibility that the player will accept.

    Comment by AJ — November 26, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

  12. Could Hudson and Punto (a given) be back and Hardy, Casila be gone? Punto, reportedly, would be the best defensive option at SS.

    Some guy posted a note here the other day about the salary coming off the books in 2012. Let’s not get too goofy here in trying to figure out FO’s budget for player salaries. They’ve long held players salaries as a company policy will not exceed 50% of gross revenues. What does that tell us about how they brought in last year? And project for 2012. Those 8 beers started to add up.

    Comment by sports pr guy — November 26, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

  13. Hudson cannot accept arbitration if he’s a Type B, because that’s the handshake agreement teams get when they give up the arbitration option on Type A. Or maybe they’re allowed to put that in writing. If not in writing, Hudson could legally accept, but that would be a poor choice because the team wouldn’t play him. Whatever the deal, there is no chance Hudson accepts arbitration.

    Comment by Twinstalker — November 27, 2010 @ 5:18 am

  14. I’d be agree with AJ above.
    Nice post btw man.

    Comment by John McRoy — November 27, 2010 @ 7:07 am

  15. sports pr guy-
    That is a possibility. There are lots of possibilities right now and the Twins aren’t showing their cards yet.

    I can say with complete confidence that Hardy is easily the best defensive shortstop option the Twins have. I believe he’s a top five defensive shortstop in all of baseball. I think he showed that last year.

    You generally know what you’re going to get with Punto, but he’s also aging and his arm is getting weaker. Casilla is a wild card. There is no way of knowing whether you’re getting good Casilla or the one who struggles offensively and defensively.

    I think it’d be hard to put total dependence on them in the shortstop position while also having an unknown in Tsuyoshi Nishioka. I think that’s too risky of a middle infield. And then there’s Danny Valencia, who you can hope will be what he was last year, but for an entire year. That’s just too many unknowns for my liking.

    With Hardy, the defense is always there. I remember there were a few times that he made bad throws, but that was really it. And even when he made some decent throws, he was throwing to Cuddyer who is no Morneau, so it wasn’t always his fault.

    And Hardy had a great offensive second half of the year. He was a bit lucky and his wrist was still bothering him, but he did really well.

    If Hardy is gone next year, I fear they will have made a very big mistake. I have this gut feeling that the 2007 version of JJ Hardy, with likely half the home runs, is starting to come back.

    Comment by AJ — November 27, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  16. Is Tadahito Iguchi (spelling?), the former second baseman for the White Sox, a good comparison? He had several decent years as their second baseman.

    Comment by derek — November 27, 2010 @ 11:12 am

  17. Needless to say I am not all that excited about this potential signing. three-year at $9 mil would be too much I think. With his age and just one very good year, his ceiling doesn’t sound impressive enough and his floor is a legitimate risk. Ink him for three-year at $6 mil and it will be a good deal.

    Comment by Kurt — November 27, 2010 @ 11:29 am

  18. This move only makes sense if Hardy is brought back. Letting Hardy go would be catastrophic mistake. There are not many shortstops who play a better defensive shortstop with the ability to hit in the 270 to 290 range with power. I watch a lot of baseball and with the exception of elvis andrus I can’t think of a better defensive shortstop. I am not at all confident in Casilla being an everyday player Casilla to me equals Luis Rivas, both talented but both lack the mental make-up to be good everyday major league ballplayers. How many chances are we going to give Casilla? Here is my final point, with all the talk of adding speed to our line up the past month, what were the twins thinking in in getting rid of Jason Bartlett. Everybody talked about losing Garza in the trade and Barlett was an afterthought, Bartlett is a shortstop you can pencil in for a 280 avg 20 to 30 steals and great defense. We basically gave Bartlett away and suffered through a year off Punto and Brendan Harris as our shortstops, I hope the Twins are not dumb enough to gamble on a Casilla Nishioka middle infield.

    Comment by Jeff — November 27, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  19. One more comment on Casilla and the twins needing more speed. Speed does not always equal good baserunning. I would never call Casilla or Punto for that matter a real good baserunner and both players have above average speed.

    Comment by Jeff — November 27, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  20. Just a thought on Bartlett, why all the love for him? What did he ever do for the Twins while he was here that would lead you to believe he’d have the (1) great season he did in Tampa?

    In a FULLTIME role with the Twins in 2007, his OPS was .699. Whoopity-doo.

    Goes to Tampa and has a career year where his OPS was .879 (his 2nd year there) and everybody goes “what were the Twins thinking?!?”

    Well guess what? The only time Bartlett has eclipsed his .699 OPS from his best Twins season is his career year for the Rays in 2009 (he was .690 in 2008, .675 in 2010).

    Bartlett also was never a great fielder. Solid on everything routine, but hardly spectacular in range or arm strength. Take his UZR/150 from this year: -13.8. That’s the worst mark of any SS in all of baseball who played more than 500 Innings at the position in 2010.

    J.J. Hardy’s UZR/150? +12.8. 2nd best mark in all of baseball for a SS who played at least 500 innings.

    It’s Hardy at SS and Nishioka at 2B or bust for the Twins in 2011 in my opinion. And I like that idea on a lot of levels.

    Comment by Steve L. — November 29, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  21. They could well expect a competition b/t Casilla and Nishioka at 2B, with the loser taking Punto’s place as the back-up MI. Nishioka’s total cost over 3 years won’t be more than they have been paying Punto on an annualized basis over the past 2. Hardy will cost a bit more than last year, but Casilla will be far less than Hudson. so that MI trio of Hardy/Nishioka/Casilla will cost less overall than Hardy/Hudson/Punto did. That’s not bad.

    And, yes, this assumes that they have a handshake deal with Hudson for rejecting arb that he honors…

    Comment by BR — November 29, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  22. Like the move, if for nothing else because it makes it less likely Punto will return.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — November 29, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  23. I think what the Twins do with Hardy depends entirely on whether or not Hudson accepts arbitration. If Hudson declines, as expected, the Twins are likely to tender Hardy and either keep him at shortstop next season while Tsuyoshi plays 2B, or use him as trade bait to lure bullpen help or a starting pitcher if the team is unable to re-sign Carl Pavano.

    However, in the outside chance Hudson does accept arbitration, Hardy is cut loose and Hudson is back at 2B while Tsuyoshi is at SS. Tsuyoshi is extremely excited about coming to the US to play baseball and likes what he’s seen of the Twins. So let’s assume that he will be wearing Twins pinstripes next year. With him in the equation, there isn’t enough room to have both Hudson and Hardy, so one of them has to go. The ball is currently in Hudson’s court and hangs on his arbitration decision.

    Like most Twins fans, I really like the idea of having Tsuyoshi at 2B and Hardy at SS. Casilla would be an excellent utility player to come in as needed if someone is injured, sick, or needs a day off. Plouffe or Tolbert are also good bench options but I would probably bundle one with some prospects for a trade.

    Comment by shannon — November 29, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

  24. Looks the Twins are stepping up there game. I have to agree with “mike wants wins” but that’s the way they do it in Boston as well.

    Comment by Abe Bellini — November 30, 2010 @ 11:59 am

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