Shortstop: JJ Hardy vs Tsuyoshi Nishioka

UPDATED UPDATED UPDATE: The Twitter reports are flying now… Joe Christensen, Ken Rosenthal and Parker Hageman (among others) are keeping up with the news, but the long and short of the situation at 11:00 am CT Friday appears to be that the Twins HAVE won the bidding (for about $5 million) for the rights to negotiate with Nishioka and that the contract could come in at $2-3 million per year on a multi-year contract. If those numbers turn out to be relatively accurate, that’s not an unreasonable financial risk to take, in my opinion. – JC

Early this week, we should find out whether the Twins have posted a successful bid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese 2010 batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Chiba Lotte Marines’ shortstop. This is kind of exciting for Twins fans. Our team has never had the money to consider signing significant MLB free agents, much less throw several million dollars at a Japanese team for the rights to pay several million dollars more to the actual player. The Twins are apparently swimming in revenue! So, you ask, why not go get this young Japanese hero?

I’m glad you asked.

Nishioka

We’ve been reading that Gardy and the Twins front office want to add speed to the Twins’ offense. It turns out that it’s kind of hard to hit baseballs out of Target Field. Those hard hit baseballs find lots of room in the gaps for doubles and triples, however. So the braintrust has decided they should add players that hit balls in the gaps and then have the speed to get around the bases quicker. I can’t really argue with this. It’s logical.

Of course, by my logic, they should probably look to upgrade that speed in their own outfield positions so they not only get better results on the bases, but also reduce the chances of opponents’ batted balls finding those wide gaps between the not-so-speedy outfielders the Twins send out to the corner OF positions.

Instead, apparently Gardy and Bill have decided that the upgrade in speed should be made at a position where the team already has one of the best defensive players in the league… shortstop. And since there are absolutely zero speedy shortstops available domestically, they’ve turned their eyes to the Land of the Rising Sun.

On the surface, it makes some sense, I suppose.

Nishioka did win the batting title in 2010 with a .346/.423/.482 split, good for an OPS of .905, and hit 11 home runs. He also stole 22 bases, while playing in all 144 of Chiba Lotte’s regular season games. He’s said to possess a strong arm and above average range at shortstop. He could also play second base if the coaches decide Alexi Casilla is the better shortstop. He’s also only 26 years old, so he could be a member of the Twins’ core group for several years to come. What’s not to like?

Plenty, actually.

Hardy

Let’s start with those stolen bases. He’s averaged about 25 stolen bases a year over the past five years and actually led his league with 41 six years ago. But he’s also been caught stealing about 1/3 of the time. That’s actually a bit above the average throw-out rate for MLB catchers. So you have to ask, do the stolen base totals indicate you’d be upgrading your speed or will he just be running the team out of rallies on a regular basis? In other words… if JJ Hardy attempted 30 steals every year, would he be successful much less than Nishioka would?

Of course, one knock on Hardy is that he’s been injury prone. If he and his bum wrist can’t take the field, what good is he? Let’s go get the guy who plays every day. OK… but that guy may not be Nishioka. While he did play the entire 2010 season, he missed anywhere between 14 and 29 games of each of his other five full seasons with the Marines, with injuries to his hamstring, knee, neck and… wait for it… yes, his wrist.

Don’t get me wrong… Nishioka may turn out to be the next Ichiro and if he does, it would be fun to see him in a Twins uniform. And maybe JJ Hardy will never regain the offensive talent he showed in 2007 and 2008. But finding out if either of those turns out to be the case will come with a cost.

Under the agreement between MLB and Nippon Baseball, once Chiba Lotte posted Nishioka, MLB teams had four days to submit a sealed bid to the Marines for the rights to enter a 30-day negotiating period with the player and his agent. It’s hard to predict what the winning bid might be, but given the lack of top tier middle infield options on the free agent market this off-season, it’s hard to imagine the winning bid being less than $10 million and I won’t be surprised if it’s closer to $15-20 million. [UPDATE: Boy did I miss on that assumption! The actual winning bid was reportedly around or just over a quite affordable $5 million.] That money only gets paid if the winning team eventually signs the player to a contract, however. Any team shelling out that kind of money for negotiating rights is going to want to lock the player up for several years.

If the Twins offer Hardy arbitration, they’ll probably end up negotiating a one-year deal for something between $6-7 million (though the possibility of signing him to a two-year deal for slightly less per year certainly exists). Compare that to the posting fee and multi-year commitment they’d have to make to acquire Nishioka, which would conservatively have to reach $25-30 million over 3-4 years. You have to ask yourself if you realistically should expect enough of an upgrade at the shortstop position to warrant that additional investment. Consider that the money you’re sending to Japan for the posting fee alone could otherwise be spent on bringing Carl Pavano back for 2011. [UPDATE: In addition to the actual $5 million-ish winning bid, early reports also indicate the possibility that salary demands may be somewhat lower than I projected here... if it's closer to $3 million/year, this becomes a much more reasonably priced "risk" in my opinion. But would it be reasonable enough to ALSO keep Hardy? Stay tuned.]

And it’s not like the Twins stand to profit by selling broadcast rights in Japan… MLB controls all international rights and divides all revenues (broadcast, merchandise, etc.) evenly among the teams. The Twins might get some additional advertising dollars from Japanese companies, but that’s about it.

In addition, while I’m not really a big “team chemistry” guy (I think it’s overrated as a success factor), I do have to wonder how well Nishioka would fit in with the Twins. In 2007, he announced that henceforth he would be listed on the Chiba Lotte roster simply as “Tsuyoshi”. Kind of like “Cher” or “Madonna”. Or that other diva, “Ichiro”.

Nishioka and fiance Tokuzawa

On the other hand… the guy has dated models and even a professional golfer and he’s apparently engaged to model/actress Naoko Tokuzawa, so he’s got that going for him. She’d certainly constitute one of those “Target Field enhancements” the Twins have been talking about if she attends his games. And get this… both Noshioka and Tokuzawa have blogs! (You might want to brush up on your Japanese before you add them to your daily list of “must reads”, though.)

This guy clearly is not short on self-esteem. However, until this past year, it doesn’t look to me like he had the performance to match his ego. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he chose this year to request that his team post him to MLB. Nor do I think it’s a coincidence that Chiba Lotte agreed to post him this year. They’re selling high and hoping to cash in if one MLB team will overpay for a young player who’s had one good year in an inferior baseball league.

I don’t think that team should be the Twins.

– JC

UPDATE 12/18: Click here to read our post welcoming Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the Twins, now that he’s officially signed with the Twins. – JC