Sad news about Hall of Famer and Twins great Harmon Killebrew, who released the following statement today:
I was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer. With my wife, Nita, by my side, I have begun preparing for what is perhaps the most difficult battle of my life. I am being treated by a team of medical professionals at the Mayo Clinic. While my condition is very serious, I have confidence in my doctors and the medical staff and I anticipate a full recovery.
The Mayo Clinic is one of the largest and most experienced medical centers treating esophageal cancer in the world. In the past decade, they have made tremendous advances in the treatment of this disease. Nita and I feel blessed to have access to the best doctors and medical care. I thank everyone for their outpouring of prayers, compassion and concern. Nita and I ask for privacy during this difficult journey.
• One-liner of the week, from SI.com media writer Richard Dietschabout NFL pregame shows: "Outside of Michael Irvin, most NFL pregame analysts will eventually provide some interesting insight and analysis."
• Next time someone makes that old joke about the book of famous Jewish athletes being just a pamphlet, I'll send them here. And then wait patiently for them to make a different joke.
• My latest podcast discovery: "Comedy and Everything Else" with Jimmy Dore and Stefane Zamorano (and for the first 60 episodes Todd Glass). They mix silly and serious as well as any podcast I've heard (albeit with a bit more politics and a bit less comedy than I'd prefer), and often have on great guests too.
• Speaking of good podcasts, here's a worlds colliding moment: One of my favorite podcasters, Jesse Thorn, talked baseball with Carson Cistulli of Fan Graphs. Not only is he a big baseball (and specifically Giants) fan, Thorn was nice enough to comment here after I wrote about liking his podcasts in a previous Link-O-Rama.
• I really, really wanted to like The Walking Deadon AMC, but throughout the first season I was bothered by the cheesy dialogue, over-acting, paper-thin characters, and silly decision-making needed to push certain plot lines along. Suffice it to say I wasn't surprised to read this.
• I'm probably a 5.5 on a 1-10 scale of Bruce Springsteen fandom, but I absolutely loved the recent HBO documentary on the making of his 1978 album "Darkness on the Edge of Town." If you like Springsteen even a little bit, try to catch a replay or rent it. Incredibly compelling.
• Speaking of documentaries, ESPN's film about Marcus Dupreewas incredible. It was so good that I randomly spent 10 minutes recapping the whole story for my mom despite her having no interest. In fact, after I was finished her only response was to ask, "Is he married now?"
I'm addicted to WhatIfSports.com's excellent Hardball Dynasty game and my league has a few franchises open with the new season set to begin next week. Hardball Dynasty is not fantasy baseball and in fact has nothing to do with fantasy baseball. It's much better. From rookie-ball to the majors it's an incredibly detailed simulation of running a fictional MLB organization, with fictional players and everything from the Rule 5 draft to international signings.
Due to the steep learning curve involved in the game and extensive time commitment required to master it we're looking first and foremost for owners with some previous Hardball Dynasty experience. Mostly, though, we're just looking for good owners and despite the sales pitch-like tone of this post I get absolutely nothing in return for someone signing up (except for a better league to enjoy, of course). If you're interested, let me know.
• Tsuyoshi Nishioka's contract turned out to be a little more team-friendly than expected. He'll earn $3 million a season for three years, which is slightly less than first reported, and the deal also includes a $4 million team option or $250,000 buyout for 2014. If he proves to be a good player the option lets the Twins control him at a reasonable cost for a fourth season and if he struggles their total commitment (including posting fee) will be $14.55 million for three years.
Vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliffnoted that the Twins have scouted Nishioka in Japan for several years, so the front office had no shortage of reports and information from which to base their opinion on him. On the other hand, somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least) Ron Gardenhire revealed that he's never even seen video of his new starting middle infielder in action:
I don't know anything about him. I don't know anything about his swing, nothing. I haven't seen video on him or anything. Just the reports from our scouts. He's supposed to be a good player. I'm going to get this kid down there [to spring training] and see what happens, see what he looks like, see where I think he's most comfortable, and talk to the kid.
Gardenhire apparently isn't much for YouTube. There were plenty of interesting quotes uttered during Nishioka's introductory press conference, but my favorite came earlier when he said the following upon arriving in Minnesota: "I was so surprised by this cold weather because it was colder than I expected. Even the stadium was covered by snow." For his sake hopefully no one is taking Nishioka to the Vikings game.
• Lost in Nishioka signing is that the Twins also dropped Jose Morales from the 40-man roster, trading the 27-year-old catcher to the Rockies for relief prospect Paul Bargas. I'm far from the biggest Drew Butera fan and would've preferred if the Twins gave Morales more of a chance to be Joe Mauer's backup, but injuries played a factor as well and at this point he's a marginal player without minor-league options who the team seemingly never trusted defensively.
Morales hit .297 with a .370 on-base percentage in 181 plate appearances for the Twins and .304 with a .367 OBP in 1,163 plate appearances at Triple-A, and those numbers coming from a switch-hitting catcher definitely make him a viable big leaguer. However, with just 11 homers and a measly .095 Isolated Power between Rochester and Minnesota he doesn't have enough pop to be an asset at another position if the Twins weren't willing to use him behind the plate.
• Bargas was a 13th-round pick in 2009 and shifted to the bullpen as a pro after starting for three years at UC-Riverside. He's posted very good numbers in the low minors with a 3.12 ERA and 98-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 98 innings, and the 6-foot-1 southpaw has been death on left-handed batters early on. He's far from a top prospect, but Bargas certainly represents a reasonable return for a 27-year-old backup catcher and at age 22 has some upside.
• I can't recall any fan base ever loving a third base coach. For the most part the job involves going unnoticed when you perform well and being vilified when you perform poorly, because the successes blend into the flow of a game and the failures bring things to a screeching halt. With that said, Scott Ullger has seemingly been an extraordinarily poor third base coach, with a tendency to get the Twins' slowest runners thrown out at the plate by the widest margins.
He's been relieved of third base duties and will now serve as bench coach, switching jobs with Steve Liddle. Aside from Al Newmanbeing let go as third base coach in 2005 there's been a remarkable lack of coaches leaving the staff during Gardenhire's decade-long tenure with the Twins, but Ullger has been moved (or perhaps more accurately, demoted) from hitting coach to third base coach in 2006 and from third base coach to bench coach now.
• There was never any chance of the Twins re-signing Orlando Hudson, but he's landed on his feet (and then some) with a two-year, $11.5 million deal from the Padres. Reportedly as part of a gentleman's agreement Hudson promised the Twins ahead of time that he'd decline their arbitration offer, so they'll get a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds for letting the Type B free agent walk.
Good defense at second base and hitting .268/.338/.372 in 126 games made Hudson a sound one-year investment for $5 million, and if you toss in a top-50 pick that also carries significant value it turned out to be a very positive signing even if the Twins didn't enjoy his presence in the clubhouse enough to bring him back. Hudson is coming off arguably a career-worst season and had to settle for one-year deals in 2009 and 2010, so getting a two-year deal now is odd.
• Mauer missed some time in September with left knee problems and recently underwent what the Twins are calling a "minor procedure" that leaves him with plenty of room to recover before spring training. Since missing most of his rookie season because of a knee injury that required surgery in 2004, he has the most plate appearances of any catcher in baseball.
• In the least surprising news since my last weight-loss attempt failed, Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Pressreports that "Gardenhire has asked the Twins' front office if it can bring back free-agent infielder Nick Punto." No word on if Gardenhire has contacted Punto, but if he did I imagine it went something like this:
He's supposed to be a good player.'
Gardenhire said he has no immediate plans to slot Nishioka either at second base or shortstop.
"I'm going to get this kid down there (to spring training) and see what happens, see what he looks like, see where I think he's most comfortable and talk to the kid," he said.
By trading J.J. Hardyto the Orioles last week the Twins signaled that they were all but certain to sign Tsuyoshi Nishioka after bidding $5.3 million last month to secure the Japanese middle infielder's exclusive negotiating rights. And sure enough the 26-year-old switch-hitter arrived in Minnesota yesterday to undergo a physical exam in preparation for signing what's expected to be a three-year, $9 million deal with a $4 million team option or $250,000 buyout for 2014.
General manager Bill Smith has made it clear that the Twins targeted Nishioka largely due to Ron Gardenhire wanting more speed in the lineup, and despite his excellent range defensively Hardy is among the slowest shortstops in baseball. Whether that focus makes sense following the team's most successful three-year stretch offensively since the early '90s is questionable, but there's no doubt that going from Hardy to Nishioka is a huge speed upgrade.
Nishioka averaged 28 steals per season in Japan, including 22 this year, but 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. His raw speed, while far superior to Hardy, is generally considered very good rather than elite. As for the rest of Nishioka's game, like past Japanese players coming to America projecting his performance requires a lot of educated guesswork.
Nishioka is coming off a career-year, winning the batting title with a .346 average and notching 206 hits in a 144-game season for the most since Ichiro Suzuki in 1994. However, he entered 2010 as a career .280 hitter in six seasons and batted just .260 in 2009. His breakout season was fueled by a .395 batting average on balls in play, which simply isn't sustainable. His career average on balls in play is .327 and no MLB hitter this decade has a career mark above .360.
Based on his track record the Twins should be happy if Nishioka can manage a batting average around .275, which should lead to a solid on-base percentage assuming he's able to maintain some of the plate discipline he displayed in Japan. He drew 79 walks this year and 67 walks in 120 games last year while posting a fairly low strikeout rate. Based on previous hitters going from Japan to MLB his walks will fall and his strikeouts will rise, but a .330 OBP seems doable.
Power hitting in Japan hasn't translated well to MLB, as only Hideki Matsui has been able to maintain any kind of significant pop following the move and even he went from 36 homers per 150 games there to 23 homers per 150 games here. Guys like Kaz Matsui, Akinori Iwamura, and Kosuke Fukudome went from sluggers there to singles hitters here, and even Suzuki was good for 17 homers per season in Japan.
Projecting a similar power dropoff for Nishioka makes sense, except he never actually showed much power even in Japan, with a career-high of 14 homers and just 11 homers in 596 at-bats this year. In fact, among the nine prominent Japanese hitters to come to MLB thus far only So Taguchi did it after showing Nishioka-like power over there, and he went on to smack a total of just 19 long balls in 1,369 at-bats for the Cardinals, Phillies, and Cubs.
Nishioka will be hard-pressed to reach double-digit homers for the Twins and a .400 slugging percentage probably represents his realistic upside, with a mark in the .360-.375 range more likely. Add it all up and an optimistic but reasonable projection would look something along the lines of .275/.335/.375, which is very close to the .268/.338/.372 mark by Orlando Hudson this year and similar to the .281/.345/.385 career mark of another familiar name, Jason Bartlett.
Of course, Kaz Matui's career MLB mark of .267/.321/.380 also puts him squarely in that same company and he was vastly more productive than Nishioka in Japan. Nishioka has a .790 OPS for his career, including .905 in his batting title-winning breakout. Matsui averaged a .920 OPS during his final five seasons in Japan, batting .320 with 25 homers and 25 steals per year. And then he hit .267 with a .701 OPS in MLB, so even .275/.335/.375 by Nishioka is far from certain.
Matsui also provides a cautionary tale when it comes to expectations for Nishioka defensively. Nishioka has won the Japanese equivalent of a Gold Glove award three times, winning as both a shortstop and a second baseman, but Matsui was a four-time Gold Glove shortstop in Japan and proved to be awful at the position in MLB, very quickly getting moved to second base and posting an Ultimate Zone Rating of 12.6 runs below average in 968 total innings at shortstop.
In an effort to learn more about Nishioka following the Twins' winning bid last month I talked to several people who frequently saw him play in Japan, including a pitcher who faced him on multiple occasions, a scout who filed reports on him to an MLB team, and a writer who tracked him closely. They all had doubts about Nishioka's ability to thrive as an MLB shortstop due to his arm strength and the difficult transition Japanese fielders face going from turf to grass.
In signing him the Twins seem to recognize those potential issues, indicating that they'll take a look at Nishioka alongside Alexi Casilla in spring training before deciding who plays shortstop and who plays second base. Since he doesn't project as an impact hitter defense will go a long way toward determining Nishioka's overall value, and for their $15 million investment to be a good one the Twins likely need him to be capable at shortstop or a standout at second base.
If he can hit .275 or so with a solid on-base percentage and be an asset on defense the Twins will have added a nice all-around player at a premium position smack in the middle of his prime years and under team control at reasonable salaries through 2014. Nishioka definitely appears capable of that if his transition to MLB goes smoothly, but his gaudy 2010 totals dramatically overstate his upside and his arrival brings at least as much uncertainty as excitement.
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