|J. Meric, Getty|
Much like catcher and first base, we find a question mark topping the depth chart at second base for the Twins entering the 2011 season. Unlike Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, however, the uncertainty surrounding Tsuyoshi Nishioka has nothing to do with his health. Instead, it sprouts from the fact that the 27-year-old, recipient of a $15 million financial commitment during the offseason, has yet to play his first major-league game.
As the 2010 season came to a close, we knew the Twins were going to give Alexi Casilla a shot at one of the middle infield spots this year. We also knew Orlando Hudson was not going to be back. So ultimately, the front office decided to replace J.J. Hardy with Nishioka. Knowing this organization's modus operandi, this preference comes as no surprise.
In many ways, the two are polar opposites. Whereas Hardy was a slow-footed, strong-armed power hitter by nature, Nishioka is a slap-hitting speedster whose lack of arm strength quickly dissuaded Ron Gardenhire from even giving him an extended look at shortstop.
And so, Nishioka will serve as the Twins' second baseman, where his mediocre arm will be less exposed and where his quick feet should be a greater asset. While his three Japanese Gold Gloves may overstate his defensive value, it's not difficult to envision Nishioka as an above-average fielder at second.
We find far less clarity with his offensive outlook. He captured a batting title in the Nippon Professional Baseball league last year by hitting .346, but prior to this emergence he'd been a sub-.290 career hitter, which quickly puts a damper on comparisons to Ichiro (who was a .350 lifetime hitter in Japan). Nishioka's plate discipline is merely decent and I expect his power to be almost non-existent, so his success at the plate will be largely dependent on his ability to maintain a high batting average.
Last year's .346 mark -- which bested his previous career high by nearly 50 points -- was heavily influenced by a sky-high BABIP. For hitters, this can be a sustainable skill, and it's certainly an area where Nishioka could continue to excel considering his high contact rate, his quickness out of the box and his outstanding foot speed (Bill Smith has called him "one of the faster runners in the game").
With that being said, the Japanese infielder will find it more difficult to turn weak grounders and soft liners into hits stateside, where the pitchers and fielders are far superior. It's also worth noting that in 2009, the year prior to his breakout campaign, he batted just .260.
NPB stars transferring to Major League Baseball don't have a particularly strong historical success rate, but Nishioka carries the advantage of being a rising star coming off the best season of his career and just entering his prime years of age.
For the time being he's an unproven rookie, and I hope that Gardenhire will treat him as such in spite of his high profile, but if his ability to hit around .300 transfers over from Japan the switch-hitter could be a quality fit between Denard Span and Joe Mauer in the No. 2 spot.
If not, he could become a considerable liability there.
Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Nishioka: .270/.330/.330, 3 HR, 35 RBI