What does winning negotiating rights to Tsuyoshi Nishioka mean for the Twins?

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Earlier this month, when the Twins announced plans to increase their payroll even further next year after blowing away the previous franchise record with more than $100 million in salaries this year, I wrote that “getting into the $115 million range would complete the transition from small-payroll team to large-payroll team” and “maintaining a top-10 payroll in the future would mean adopting a new view of roster management and free agency involvement.”

And then I didn’t even take my own advice.

When various national and local reports began to link the Twins to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka my assumption was that they had little chance of actually submitting the high bid for his exclusive negotiating rights. Since when do the Twins throw around money for free agents, let alone free agents from Japan who literally require out-bidding every other MLB team? Since now, apparently.

By submitting a high bid believed to be about $5 million to Nishioka’s team in Japan, the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Twins have acquired exclusive negotiating rights to the 26-year-old middle infielder. That gives them 30 days to work out a separate deal with Nishioka, at which point the $5 million bid will be refunded to the Twins if the two sides can’t reach an agreement and he’ll be ineligible to play in the majors until going through the same process next offseason.

Japanese players who previously joined MLB teams through the “posting” process typically got contracts that were close to the same amount as the high bid for their negotiating rights. For example, the Red Sox bid $51 million to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka and then inked him to a six-year, $52 million contract. Going back even further, the Mariners bid $13 million to talk to Ichiro Suzuki and then signed him for $14 million.

Kazuhisa Ishii, Kei Igawa, and Akinori Iwamura also had similarly even bid/contract splits via the posting process, and Iwamura is perhaps the most comparable to Nishioka. Tampa Bay bid $4.5 million to get Iwamura’s negotiating rights from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in November of 2006 and signed him to a three-year, $7.7 million contract. Based on those precedents and initial reports of Nishioka’s asking price, a three-year deal for around $9 million seems likely.

As for what type of player the Twins are now trying to sign … well, that’s difficult to say with any kind of certainty. Nishioka won the batting title this year by hitting .346 and notched 206 hits in a 144-game season for the most by any player since Suzuki in 1994. However, he came into the year as a career .280 hitter in six previous seasons and batted just .260 in 2009. He also has limited power, with a career-high of 14 homers and just 11 in 596 at-bats this year.

No doubt one reason why the Twins pursued Nishioka is that they wanted to add speed to the lineup after becoming more of a station-to-station team in recent years. Whether or not that makes sense is up for debate, as the Twins’ offense during the past three seasons has been better than it was since the early 1990s, but Ron Gardenhire has repeatedly singled out the middle infield as a spot to add that speed.

Nishioka has averaged 28 stolen bases a season, including 22 this year, so he certainly would bring significantly more speed to the lineup than J.J. Hardy or Orlando Hudson. On the other hand 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 to a team, and Nishioka’s raw speed is considered merely good rather than elite like Suzuki or Iwamura.

Defensively he’s won the Japanese equivalent of a Gold Glove award three times, receiving the honor as both a shortstop and second baseman. However, some reports have questioned his ability to play shortstop full time in the big leagues and the only previous Japanese shortstop to sign with an MLB team, Kaz Matsui, was a four-time Gold Glove winner in Japan and proved to be shaky enough at the position that he quickly moved to second base.

Matsui’s disappointing seven-year run in the majors also provides some reason to be skeptical of Nishioka’s offensive upside. Even in winning the batting title with a .346 average Nishioka’s overall numbers this year pale in comparison to Matsui’s gaudy production in Japan. Nishioka posted a .905 OPS this season and has a .790 OPS for his career. Matsui averaged a .920 OPS during his final five seasons in Japan, batting .320 with 25 homers and 25 steals per year.

Nishioka’s career-year is basically what Matsui did every year, and Matsui ended up hitting just .267 with a .321 on-base percentage and .380 slugging percentage in the majors. Obviously it’s not fair to assume Nishioka will follow in Matsui’s footsteps just because they’re from the same country, particularly since guys like Suzuki and Hideki Matsui thrived here, but as of now there’s no precedent for a Japanese shortstop thriving offensively or defensively in MLB.

Power hitting in Japan hasn’t translated to MLB, with Kaz Matsui perhaps the most prominent example of someone who went from a slugger there to a slap-hitter here. Prior to a crippling knee injury Iwamura was a nice top-of-the-order bat for the Rays, using his speed to rack up infield hits while getting on base at a .355 clip, but he was actually a 40-homer guy in Japan. Nishioka is unique in that his power in Japan hasn’t even been impressive.

Nishioka is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .346/.423/.482, but as a 26-year-old career .293/.364/.421 hitter any attempts to project MLB performance that take into account pre-2010 production in Japan aren’t going to be very kind. Going from Japan to MLB has turned middle-of-the-order monsters into bottom-of-the-order slappers, so Nishioka’s already modest power may prove to be nearly non-existent.

With that said, if he can maintain a batting average around .275 and get on base at a decent clip after showing solid plate discipline and contact skills in Japan he’d still be a decent-hitting middle infielder, and if that comes with good defense a total investment of approximately $14 million for three seasons could certainly be worthwhile. Nearly everything about Nishioka boils down to an educated-guessing game, but his defense in particular is a huge key.

If he can stick at shortstop and/or be a major asset at second base Nishioka looks like a solid player, although how exactly he fits into the Twins’ plans for 2011 is unclear. Hudson is still in the picture for now after the Twins offered him arbitration Tuesday, but that was reportedly only done because the two sides have a behind-the-scenes agreement that he will decline the offer before almost surely signing elsewhere.

Alexi Casilla is the obvious replacement for Hudson at second base, but he could also move to shortstop if the Twins can sign Nishioka and view him more as a second baseman. And then of course there’s Hardy, who must be tendered a contract by early next week if the Twins want to retain his 2011 rights. They’re likely to do that regardless of whether they plan to actually keep Hardy, as multiple teams have reportedly expressed interest in trading for him.

My best guess right now is that the Twins will tender Hardy a contract and retain him until the Nishioka negotiations are resolved one way or another, ultimately trading Hardy if they’re able to sign Nishioka and keeping Hardy as the starting shortstop if they aren’t. Keeping both guys is perhaps also an option, and Hardy at shortstop with Nishioka at second base and Casilla as the utility man would likely be the best-case scenario from a strictly on-field standpoint.

Unfortunately the Twins appear to have soured somewhat on Hardy despite his being above-average for a shortstop this year and it seems unlikely that they’d have room in the budget–even a souped-up version–to keep Hardy for around $7 million after committing $14 million or so to Nishioka. I’d prefer to see a Hardy-Nishioka middle infield with Casilla in a bench role, but right now I’d bet on a Nishioka-Casilla middle infield with Hardy being dealt for bullpen help.

Athletics call up top prospect Franklin Barreto

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The Athletics called up their top prospect on Saturday, inserting shortstop Franklin Barreto into the lineup for their second game against the White Sox. Barreto was originally scheduled to make his major league debut on Sunday, but got a head start after Jed Lowrie sustained a minor knee sprain in Friday’s 3-0 win and was scratched from Saturday’s lineup.

Barreto, 21, has been rapidly climbing the rungs of the A’s minor league system after getting dealt by the Blue Jays in 2014. He got his first taste of Triple-A action late last year, going 6-for-17 with three RBI and getting caught stealing in two attempts. He fared little better this spring, slashing .281/.326/.428 with eight home runs and a .754 OPS through his first 309 PA in Nashville.

While his minor league production has been solid, if underwhelming for a prospect of his caliber, the A’s are expected to give the rookie infielder a long leash with both Marcus Semien and Chad Pinder sitting on the disabled list. Pinder landed on the 10-day DL after suffering a left hamstring strain on Friday. Semien, meanwhile, is still working his way back from the 60-day DL with a right wrist fracture and likely won’t rejoin the team until he completes a rehab assignment with High-A Stockton.

And That Happened: Friday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Friday’s scores and highlights:

Red Sox 9, Angels 4: David Ortiz commanded center stage at Fenway Park for the first time since 2016, becoming the 10th player in franchise history to have his number retired. The club hung his jersey number between those of Wade Boggs and Jackie Robinson and invited the slugger to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, which landed just a few feet wide of the plate:

Following the ceremony, the Red Sox capped their tribute with a decisive 9-4 win over the visiting Angels, powered by 6 1/3 innings of four-run ball from Rick Porcello and a two-RBI performance from Sandy Leon. They remain tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East.

Nationals 6, Reds 5 (10 innings): Bryce Harper came through in the clutch on Friday, walking off on a two-out single in the 10th after Brian Goodwin tied the game with a home run in the seventh inning. It was the first lead the Nats held all night after the Reds’ offense erupted with a four-run inning to start the game, and, thankfully, the only one they needed to preserve a nine-game advantage in the NL East.

Yankees 2, Rangers 1 (10 innings): Everyone was a winner on Friday — well, except for the Rangers. The Yankees clung to first place with an airtight performance from Masahiro Tanaka, who matched Yu Darvish inning-for-inning and finished the night with just three hits, two walks and nine strikeouts. The offense did the rest, saving their first run for the ninth inning on Brett Gardner‘s one-out home run and securing the win with Ronald Torreyes‘ walk-off hit in the 10th.

If it feels like it’s been a while since the Yankees won a game via walk-off, that’s because they haven’t done it since April:

Marlins 2, Cubs 0: Giancarlo Stanton won’t get a chance to defend his Home Run Derby title for a few more weeks, but he got plenty of practice against the Cubs this weekend. He fueled the Marlins’ shutout with a 458-foot blast, putting the club on the board in the third inning and lending some support to Jose Urena‘s fifth win of the season.

Rays 15, Orioles 5: According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Orioles have allowed a cumulative 160 runs over their last 20 games. They took their sixth double-digit defeat in that span on Friday, handing the Rays a 10-run lead after Tampa Bay engineered three separate innings of 4+ runs. To say that Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter is concerned about his rotation is an understatement. Via MLB.com’s Brittany Ghiroli:

Got to pitch better. It is what it is. The help’s going to come from within,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “We got to get back in step and create some rhythm for the offense, and even the defense gets out of step when the game’s being played so choppy and not very crisp. I really don’t like hanging it around one phase of it, but it starts if we could just string some good starts together. You can get into some type of rhythm.

Twins 5, Indians 0: The Twins entered a pivotal series this weekend as they attempt to unseat the Indians from first place, and Friday’s 5-0 shutout saw them pull within two games of the division lead. Adalberto Mejia strung five scoreless innings together, flummoxing the Indians at the plate with two hits, five walks and four strikeouts en route to his second win of the year. Not only was it the first win Mejia recorded since the Twins’ doubleheader last month, but it was the first time the southpaw managed to log more than 100 pitches in any major league start to date.

Braves 5, Brewers 4: Just call Dansby Swanson the next time you need a save. The Braves’ shortstop was instrumental in the team’s nail-biting finish on Friday evening, executing a run-saving fielder’s choice to catch Eric Thames off the third base bag in the ninth inning and helping right-hander Arodys Vizcaino secure his first save of the year with a diving stop to end the game.

Athletics 3, White Sox 0: The A’s finally brought their four-game skid to a halt, coasting to their second shutout of the season on five solid innings from right-hander Jharel Cotton. Cotton exited in the sixth inning with a blister on his pitching hand, but the bullpen kept things rolling against the White Sox with four scoreless frames. Khris Davis and Matt Joyce took care of things at the plate, muscling two home runs to give the A’s the edge they needed to lock down their 32nd win of the year.

Pirates 4, Cardinals 3: Jameson Taillon and Adam Wainwright were locked into a pitcher’s duel during the Cardinals’ home opener, holding their respective opponents to just two runs apiece over the first four innings. After Taillon’s exit in the sixth inning, the Cardinals jumped on reliever Daniel Hudson with a tie-breaking home run from Paul DeJong, but couldn’t quite close the door after the Pirates rebounded with a David Freese RBI single in the eighth inning. John Jaso smacked a game-winning home run in the ninth, securing the win and breaking the Bucs’ seven-game losing streak at Busch Stadium to boot.

Royals 5, Blue Jays 4: The Blue Jays appeared to be on the verge of a much-needed win on Friday, but some late-game struggles from the bullpen quickly unraveled eight innings of hard work. With two outs in the ninth inning, Alcides Escobar cut the Jays’ lead in half with an RBI single, followed by another from Alex Gordon and a game-winning two-run double off the bat of Whit Merrifield — the first walk-off of his major league career.

Phillies 6, Diamondbacks 1: Don’t look now, but the Phillies are… well, still in the last place. A 6-1 win is still worth celebrating, however, as they turned in an impressive four-run spread in the ninth inning to hand Mark Leiter his first win of the year. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, now sit 2.5 games behind the division-leading Dodgers after squandering another quality start from left-hander Patrick Corbin.

Padres 1, Tigers 0: The Padres have won all but one home opener this season, and Friday’s 1-0 shutout was no exception. They continued their dominant streak with their fourth shutout of the year, backed by six innings of two-hit ball from right-hander Luis Perdomo. Despite Perdomo’s season-high five walks, not a single runner was able to advance past second base, gifting the Padres with a win after Austin Hedges doubled home the winning run in the second inning.

Mariners 13, Astros 3: Felix Hernandez may not look like the King the Mariners crowned back in 2010, but he certainly got the royal treatment upon his return from the disabled list on Friday night. The offense put up a sparkling 13 runs behind Hernandez’s six-inning, six-strikeout effort, topped by a trifecta of home runs from Mike Zunino, Ben Gamel and Kyle Seager. The double-digit finish extended the Mariners’ win streak to six games, giving Seattle hope that they’ll stick above .500 for more than a couple of days.

Dodgers 6, Rockies 1: The Dodgers steamrolled the Rockies to their eighth consecutive win on Friday, extending Alex Wood‘s record to 8-0 with 6 1/3 innings of a three-hitter. The Rockies struck early on an RBI double from Tom Murphy in the second, but found themselves unable to move a runner past first base in any subsequent inning. With the win, the Dodgers are now 14-1 in their last 15 contests, good for the best record in the majors, though they’ll need more than a couple of wins to completely shake the Rockies and Diamondbacks from contention.

Mets 11, Giants 4: The Giants took one step forward and two steps back this week, earning their 10th loss in 11 games after the Mets turned out an 11-run win on Friday. Ty Blach imploded after three innings with a career-high 11 hits and seven runs and failed to strike out a single batter. Club manager Bruce Bochy didn’t let his players off the hook, either, and told reporters that he wouldn’t excuse the team’s poor performance despite their early-morning arrival from Atlanta prior to the game. “Sure, we landed early in the morning, but it’s not the first time this has happened,” Bochy said. “You deal with it.”