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Updated: February 1st, 2012 9:20pm
Mackey: Bad year gets worse for Nishioka, but Twins offer clean slate

Mackey: Bad year gets worse for Nishioka, but Twins offer clean slate

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

It's pretty safe to say Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka will never experience a 12-month period quite like the one he had in 2011.

The year began with Nishioka commanding more media attention, by far, than any player on the Twins' roster during spring training -- a contingent that included 10-15 Japanese reporters, plus a handful of American media members following him daily and analyzing his every motion, even during simple stretching drills.

But after suffering through a broken leg, a strained oblique, a .226/.278/.249 batting line, and some of the worst defense played by any infielder in baseball, Nishioka's performance warranted having only two Japanese reporters stick around through September.

And now, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation, Nishioka is also going through a divorce from his supermodel wife, Naoko Tokuzawa, just months after the couple celebrated the birth of their first child in August.

Rock bottom.

Nishioka, 27, is owed a total of $6 million over the next two seasons, so no, he won't be cut.

Nor will he be traded, as no team has interest in paying him that $6 million.

And even though he does have minor league options, "I haven't given that much thought," general manager Terry Ryan said by phone Wednesday. "I hope it doesn't come to that."

Instead, Nishioka will head down to Fort Myers later this month to fight for a utility infield spot behind Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla.

"I think he is aware that it was one of those transitional years that didn't go too well," Ryan said. "I was with him quite a bit down in Florida when he was rehabbing from the broken leg, so I got to know him just a little bit. Not as well as (former GM Bill Smith) or (assistant GM) Rob Antony. ... But I watched him down there.

"I keep reminding myself that last spring he had a decent spring for us. It fell apart, we all know that. He got hurt right out of the chute, and he never got it back to the way we thought it might be. But nonetheless, he's going to come in and compete for a job."

Nishioka's rock bottom moment on the field came in Cleveland on Aug. 14, when starter Carl Pavano took a 1-0 lead into the sixth inning.

Indians outfielder Ezequiel Carrera reached on a bunt single to start the frame, but Pavano induced a hard-hop double-play ball off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo, only to see the ball glance off Nishioka's glove and roll into the outfield. With runners on first and second and nobody out, Nishioka botched another chance at turning a double play when he booted a grounder hit by Jason Kipnis.

Two batters later, Nishioka bobbled a slow roller by the heavy-footed Travis Hafner and later forgot to cover second base on a grounder to the right side of the infield.

Pavano wound up allowing only two runs despite Nishioka's defensive gaffes. But the stress of pitching around the extra outs was enough to send the veteran right-hander into a blinding, cooler-beating dugout rage.

At the plate, Nishioka struggled catching up to fastballs, and the coaching staff noticed him trying to compensate by starting his swing earlier -- a tweak that did little to help his production. Even when Nishioka did make contact, he didn't drive the ball with any authority, as shown by his paltry total of five extra-base hits.

Going back to his success in Japan, Nishioka's league-leading .346 batting average in 2010 was aided significantly by a .399 batting average on balls in play -- an unrepeatable number that in most years would sit below .350. Batting .346 was an aberration, not a norm.

So, what's his upside? And what can the Twins expect in 2012?

"That's a good question. I don't know," Ryan said.

"I can tell you what kind of skills he has. He runs, he's a switch-hitter, he out to have the ability to steal a base with his speed. He's got enough arm strength to play short, he's got enough athleticism to play shortstop. I think there's a transition here compared to Japan, because a lot of his games are played on turf over there and he waited for the ball to get to him. That's what happens on turf, you can do that because it's a much quicker hop, and certainly the hops are truer and all that stuff.

"But the game over there is different than from here. I don't think there's any doubt, and I suspect he probably recognized that as well. But we're going to clean the slate is what we're going to try to do. We'll see if we can pull out of him what our people evaluated out of Japan."

When Nishioka went back to his home in Japan in October, the Twins sent him there with clear offseason objectives, mainly building more strength and getting more comfortable charging grounders.

"He is working out hard and much more seriously than last year," said Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony via email. "He knows what to expect and he is stronger, especially in his lower half. We expect him to come to camp and compete for a job.

"No one is assured of anything, but we are hoping Jamey Carroll comes in and settles down the shortstop position. Nishi has the ability to play (second base) and (shortstop) and I believe he will battle Casilla for the (second base) job. If he performs well he will be in position to start or be a valuable utility player."

And that's not to say Casilla's job is vulnerable. He's the incumbent starter, and Twins decision-makers have praised the way he played in May and June prior to the hamstring injury. But Casilla's inability to stay healthy could open a door at some point.

That is, if Nishioka is able to walk through it.

"I'm hoping, obviously, with a year now of experience," Ryan said, "and a familiarity with the manager and coaching staff, and ballpark, and the league, and the travel, I'm hoping like heck it's a better experience for all of us."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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