At the beginning of the week Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was asked by a fan to offer up his starting line-up for the beginning of the 2012 season. He obliged by listing the players in their appropriate spots from one through nine. There were very few surprises in his list and there could be room for change since it is only the beginning of February.
This got me thinking about the rest of the players who could be making an impact on the Twins during the 2012 campaign. The team has seen the departure of a variety of players who played a role off of the bench during the last couple of seasons. Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert, and Jim Thome will all be wearing different uniforms next season (or possibly no uniform). This will leave the Twins with a different crop of players to compete for playing time off of the bench.
This series of posts has been given the name "Bench Buddies" and the first piece focused on the role of Trevor Plouffe. Another player with a lot to prove in 2012 is former Japanese star Tsuyoshi Nishioka. The Twins gave him a decent amount of money to produce at the big league level and he has not met expectations at this point.
2011 stat summary: .226/.278/.249, 0 HR, 5 DBL, 19 RBI, 14 R, 68 G
2011 season story-line: There was quite the buzz in the offseason after the Twins outbid all other teams in Major League Baseball for the services of a young middle infielder by the name of Tsuyoshi Nishioka. He had just won the Japanese League batting title and was awarded a Gold Glove for his defensive skills at shortstop. By jumping into the market for Japanese players, the Twins hoped to broaden their international appeal and to develop a star in the middle of their infield. It didn't take long for most of those dreams to come crashing to the ground.
In only his sixth game in America, Nishioka would suffer a leg injury that kept him out of the line-up until mid-June. The Twins were in Yankee Stadium to face off against the team who eliminated them from the playoffs in 2010. Mark Teixeira hit a grounder to Twins third baseman Danny Valencia, who threw the ball to Nishioka at second. Nishioka recorded the out at second and threw on to first, but Swisher slid into the planted left leg of Nishioka. It was a clean slide on the part of the Yankees outfielder but Nishioka had suffered a broken fibula because he hadn't tried to avoid the slide from Swisher.
Following the leg injury, the Twins decided to move Nishioka from second base back to shortstop, the position he played in Japan. There were very few positives during his time as the shortstop of the Twins. His defense was atrocious and it seemed he liked to use his chest more than his glove to try and stop the ball. As a switch hitter, he struggled from both sides of the plate but the right side was slightly worse. While batting from the right side, he hit .203/.222/.241 and when he switched sides he batted .239/.308/.254. The two approaches he takes from each side are different and it was hard for Nishioka to find a rhythm with his transition to the US.
2012 role and expectations: The case of Nishioka's value in 2012 is a perplexing one to answer for the Twins organization. His skills on the field in 2011 did not seem worth his spot on the 25-man roster. There were errors on the defensive side of the ball and very few positives from an offensive standpoint. The Twins have brought in Jamey Carroll to start at shortstop and Alexi Casilla will be given every opportunity to hold down second base. If Nishioka is on the bench, what value can he provide the team? He would not be a good player to be used as a defensive replacement. It would be silly to use him as a pinch hitter at any point in the late innings. In 68 games last year, he only managed two steals in six attempts so being a pinch runner also seems out of the question.
It can be a challenge to find a positive in the 2011 season for Nishioka. There were gradual improvements with his batting numbers as the season progressed. His batting average increased in each of the last three months of the season. From the beginning of August until the beginning of September, he hit .273/.324/.288 in 66 at-bats over 22 games. The first year transition from a foreign league to the pace of MLB can be hard for some to handle. Nishioka's injury in the first handful of days in the season was also a major kink in his learning curve. If he continues to make some subtle changes, there could still be some value to be found in this infielder.
Terry Ryan and the rest of the front office for the Twins are hoping to wipe his slate clean for the coming season. The club has given him offseason objectives and there is a chance he could squeak into a starting role if there were some major improvements since the end of last year. The Twins have put their hope in Casilla's ability to start before and that plan has not always worked out in favor of the team. Nishioka has a year under his belt in the U.S. and the good news is the 2012 season can't be much worse than last year for Mr. Nishioka.