Mackey: Criticism should be aimed at Twins, not Tsuyoshi Nishioka
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Despite sitting double-digit games under .500 and double-digit games out of first place in the American League Central, the Minnesota Twins arrived to Cleveland this week with some positive vibes.
Winners of seven out of 10 games after taking three of four in Boston, the Twins had played above-.500 baseball since May 16 while scoring an average of five runs per game. And since the All-Star break, no team has scored more runs than the Twins.
Ben Revere and Joe Mauer are both within a sniff of Mike Trout for the American League batting title, Josh Willingham is on pace to shatter his career highs in home runs and RBIs, Justin Morneau is swinging better now than he has since suffering a concussion in 2010, Ryan Doumit is on fire, and Denard Span is having his best season since 2009.
Certainly none of the above can erase a disastrous 10-26 start, but for the first time since July of 2011 the Twins were building some positive momentum.
So what kind of a message does it send to the guys in the clubhouse who have busted their asses to dig out of an embarrassing hole, and the fans who pay good money to watch, when the front office hands a temporary, undeserved starting job to one of the prominent faces of a 99-loss team?
On Monday, in his first major league game since last September, Tsuyoshi Nishioka booted the first groundball he saw, then made an awkward, sprawling, errant throw wide of first base. He was also charged with another error later in the game.
Nishioka went to the wrong spot on a relay in Tuesday's game -- a concept the Twins demanded he master at Rochester -- and was late covering first base on a bunt play.
On Wednesday, he botched a double play ball, lost a pop-up in the sun and misfired to home plate when a solid throw likely guns down the baserunner.
At the plate, he went 0-for-12.
Nishioka's performance this week was so bad -- save for a sac fly on Tuesday that drove home the go-ahead run in the ninth inning -- that even TV and radio analysts Bert Blyleven and Dan Gladden were more critical than usual.
But as easy as it is to pile on the guy who is clearly overmatched in the major leagues, continuing to rip on Nishioka is missing the target entirely.
Throughout February and March, general manager Terry Ryan made it clear the Twins would no longer allow players to coast through on "scholarship programs." The new mantra would be something along the lines of, "Perform well or you won't play."
The Twins stuck to that message for the most part. Drew Butera didn't hit enough last year, so he was left off the 25-man roster to start the season. Luke Hughes was DFA'd early on. Danny Valencia didn't hit or show enough improvement in the field in April, so he was optioned to Rochester, then traded to Boston. Rene Tosoni and Joe Benson were demoted from Triple-A to Double-A due to poor performance. Jason Marquis was flat-out released.
Nishioka was among the first wave of cuts in Fort Myers, and he spent April, May, June and July in minor-league exile, deservedly so. That's because Nishioka was, without question, one of the worst every-day players in the major leagues last season.
Of the 300-plus players who came to the plate at least 230 times in 2011, only Adam Dunn produced fewer Wins Above Replacement (-2.9) than Nishioka (-1.4), and Dunn batted twice as often. Of that same group, only Reid Brignac, Drew Butera, Jeff Mathis, Chone Figgins and Paul Janish posted lower OPS marks than Nishioka (.527).
Defensively, only Dee Gordon and Ryan Theriot rated worse at shortstop according to Ultimate Zone Rating.
The Twins cited Nishioka's broken leg, which knocked him out for two months, his adjustment to a new culture, and also a high-profile divorce as partial explanations for his lack of productivity last year.
In reality, the Twins thought they were signing a completely different player two offseasons ago. They thought they were signing some semblance of the guy who won the Japanese batting title in 2010 with a .346 average, but Nishioka's astronomical .400 batting average on balls in play indicated his performance was nowhere near repeatable.
Moreover, when a 27-year-old player struggles mightily in the major leagues, then hits .245/.309/.301 in Triple-A, his only chance to make it is if he is an elite defensive player.
That clearly isn't the case with Nishioka.
His $3 million salary aside, for the Twins to justify giving Nishioka another look this season, he had to show significant improvement against lesser competition in Triple-A.
According to the numbers, he didn't. In 357 Triple-A at-bats this season Nishioka hit just .245/.309/.301 with one home run, and that includes a lukewarm July where he hit .298/.336/.365. Nishioka stole only six bases for Rochester and was thrown out just as often.
From a scouting perspective, the Twins received reports recently from Red Wings manager Gene Glynn and other scouts saying Nishioka was a much-improved player offensively and defensively.
Logically, calling Nishioka up this week made some sense. With Trevor Plouffe on the disabled list and scheduled to come back Friday, the Twins' infield options in Rochester were sparse. Chris Parmelee was most deserving of a call-up, but he needs every-day at-bats and wasn't likely to get them. Pedro Florimon and Sean Burroughs are both sidelined due to injury, and the newly-acquired Eduardo Escobar must spend 10 days in the minors until being eligible for a call-up. Nishioka was convenient because he already occupies a spot on the Twins' 40-man roster.
If Nishioka was used as a temporary backup, the move would have been justifiable. But starting him in three consecutive games? -- a decision, by the way, that was more front-office driven than managerially-driven.
That's abuse of the scholarship program.
And it reeks of an attempt to salvage any value out of the near-$15 million spent on Nishioka's services. In the process, the Twins -- despite taking two of three from a reeling Cleveland team -- embarrassed Nishioka and embarrassed themselves.