In December 2010, the Twins announced that they signed an all-star infielder from Chiba Lotte in Japan. The Twins and fans alike were excited to welcome an Olympian to the team. Why wouldn’t they? Tsuyoshi Nishioka was dominating in Japan, selected for both the 2006 World Baseball Classic and 2008 Olympic teams. When Nishioka played for Chiba Lotte for seven years, he averaged .273 with 300 RBIs, while heading to the Nippon Professional Baseball all-star game five times. Twins fans were ecstatic when they heard about his signing. But something went terribly wrong fast: his talent didn’t transfer to America. This signing may have been the beginning of the end for former General Manager Bill Smith.
The Twins had high hopes for Nishioka, as they spent $5 million just to get a chance to sign him and then signed him to a three-year, $9 million contract with a club-option for 2014. His Major League career didn’t start as some hoped, as he struggled at the plate in Toronto in the opening series of the 2011 season. Just seven games in, Nishioka broke his leg when Nick Swisher of the Yankees slid into him trying to break up a double play. When Nishioka returned in the middle of June, he looked sluggish but the Twins chose to keep his bat in the Major League starting line-up. He struggled in the field, racking up 10 errors for the season. At the end of the 2011 campaign, he posted a meager .226 with 50 hits and 19 RBIs.
During nine 2012 Spring Training games, Nishioka batted .240 and had six hits before being demoted to Triple-A, losing the starting spot to Alexi Casilla. Nishioka was playing better in Triple-A and was rewarded when third baseman Trevor Plouffe landed on the DL. But in a three-game stint starting August 6, Nishioka didn’t show any signs of hope. He went 0-for-12 during the Cleveland series, while racking up three sloppy errors. During one play in that series, Nishioka watched an easy fly ball fall to the ground and didn’t go after it. Needless to say, Nishioka sat the next three games on the bench, before being sent back down on August 13 to make room for Plouffe. Nishioka’s only highlight was a sacrifice fly in his three games back in a Twins uniform.
The Nishioka signing was Smith’s last “major” one as the Twins General Manager. During the 2006 off-season, Smith submitted a low offer to center fielder Torii Hunter, which Hunter turned down. He subsequently went to Anaheim on a five-year contract. Two years later, Smith decided to trade all-star starting pitcher Johan Santana to the New York Mets for four sub-par players; only two of the four ever made it to the Major Leagues. Then in December 2010, the Twins traded shortstop J.J. Hardy to Baltimore for two players, including relief pitcher Jim Hoey. Hardy then had a career year with the Orioles, smashing 30 home runs and driving in 80. When Nishioka didn’t work out as planned, it was definitely the beginning to the end of Smith’s reign. After the 2011 season, Smith was fired as GM and Terry Ryan was named Interim GM.
Nishioka won’t be back in the Twins line-up anytime soon. On August 20, the Twins cut him, along with pitcher Nick Blackburn, from their 40-man roster. Both will be assigned to Triple-A Rochester after clearing the waiver system. This year in Rochester, Nishioka has an .252 average with 26 RBIs and 2 home runs. The infielder from Japan must perform well in Rochester for the remaining 12 games, and if he does the Twins could think about inviting him back for 2013 Spring Training. However, if Nishioka continues to struggle mightily at the minor league level, the Twins must seriously think about releasing him this off-season. And no, the Twins must not bring Nishioka back for his club-option fourth year in 2014. So far, Nishioka has not become the player he was in Japan.
Written by: Michael L. Sack