December 20, 2010

Twins Notes: Nishioka, Morales, Bargas, Ullger, Hudson, and Punto

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 Radcliff noted 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 Newman being 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 Press reports 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.