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Updated: March 19th, 2012 9:03pm
Mackey: Nishioka's demotion confirms failure on multiple levels

Mackey: Nishioka's demotion confirms failure on multiple levels

© AP 2012
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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In a "B" game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday morning, Tsuyoshi Nishioka didn't exactly put on a strong showing in front of Minnesota Twins executives.

With general manager Terry Ryan and assistant general manager Rob Antony looking on, Nishioka hit two dribblers that barely left the infield grass (he beat one out for an infield single).

In another at-bat, he swung at a 2-0 fastball and squirted a cue-ball dribbler that rolled foul, about 15 feet from the batter's box. He took the 2-1 pitch for a borderline strike, rolled his eyes at the umpire, then a few seconds later had to awkwardly turn back and ask what the count was.

In reality, Nishioka's "B"-game performance had very little -- if anything -- to do with his impending demotion. His spring performance overall, coupled with a disastrous rookie season, is what landed him in Triple-A camp halfway through March -- and less than halfway through a three-year, $9 million guaranteed contract.

Give GM Ryan credit for electing not to mess around.

Rather than play out the charade and wait until the final round of cuts, Ryan sent Nishioka down the Lee County Sports Complex sidewalk to minor league camp two weeks early.

There was no reason to keep Nishioka in major league camp any longer, because -- $3 million salary or not -- he simply isn't a major league player right now.

It's an indictment on Nishioka, who has done a poor job adjusting from the Japanese baseball culture, but it's even more of an indictment on the Twins' front office at the time of the signing for  believing Nishioka could be their every-day shortstop.

As longtime Twins clubhouse fixture Wayne "Big Fella" Haddaway often says, "It's not your fault, kid. It's the scout who signed you."

"Right now, we need to work with Nishi on a few things," said Ryan, who took over GM duties from Bill Smith 11 months after the team signed Nishioka. "Some of it's positioning, cutoffs, relays, where to go and stuff like that. It's not huge, but it is a big piece. ...

"It's not the biggest -- you know hit, throw, field, run, steal bases -- all that stuff's big, but also there's some other things that need to be worked on. We told him this morning, we need to have him slow the game down and make sure he's in the right spot on cutoffs and relays and those things."

Think about some of the items being discussed here -- positioning, cutoffs, relays. Backhands and double-play footwork can be added to that last as well.

We're not talking about Nishioka drawing a few more walks, or mixing in a little more power. We're talking about a (former) gold-glove starting middle infielder, and a former Japanese batting champion with a .527 OPS and five extra-base hits last season who still needs help with basic fundamentals.

Granted, these fundamental items are all culturally different in Japan, but they are items that show just how far away he is from contributing.

"(He needs to) slow the game down and get back to having fun," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Everything he does right now looks like it's work. This is a game. We've got to get him back to enjoying it. I told him, you get down there, maybe you'll relax a little bit and just play and play the game and get a smile back on your face and play. Right now, he's just trying to be too quick with everything. Simple (things), just taking ground balls, he's trying to be too quick and most of the balls come out almost on the end of his glove. ...

"But right now, he needs to just go play and get away from this. He's fighting himself a lot. He's trying really hard. He's worked really hard during the winter, all those things. Right now, everything he tries to do is so quick. ... I've told Nishi you've got to slow your feet down, you've got to slow your hands down and not try to be so quick, because the ballgame starts getting a little goosey on him when he starts trying to be so quick. We've seen it over and over again. So, it's going to be a learning experience for him, something he's going to have to adjust to. It's not easy."

Nishioka over Hardy

The decision to sign Nishioka involved multiple components. The incumbent starting shortstop at the time, J.J. Hardy, was coming off a season in which he missed almost two months with an injured left wrist.

It's not always fair to judge in hindsight, after Hardy blasted 30 home runs in 2011 while Nishioka sputtered as one of the worst hitters in baseball.

But signs of a possible breakout were evident.

When Hardy was healthy -- not including a 12-game stretch in which he tried to come back too early from wrist soreness -- he hit .285/.334/.424 with six home runs in 335 plate appearances. That .758 OPS would have ranked him first among all qualified American League shortstops.

Hardy's bat was legit, for a shortstop, even in the middle of a total mechanical overhaul, and even playing half his games in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. But the Twins wanted more speed in the lineup, and they wanted more durability.

According to league sources, the Twins were strongly considering non-tendering Hardy (at $5.85 million) that offseason, but instead they offered arbitration and found a trade partner in the Baltimore Orioles, who shipped relievers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson.

When Hardy arrived to Baltimore's spring training camp last year, his wrist issues briefly flared up again until Orioles trainers treated the injury "a little bit different" than the Twins.

Hardy added, "I don't want to get into that too much and make people look bad, but yeah."

Pressed Monday on the issue of Hardy and Nishioka's drastically different paths, Ryan -- who is left to answer questions about a situation he did not directly create -- said, "This has nothing to do with Hardy."

For emphasis, Ryan repeated: "It has nothing to do with Hardy. ...

"Whenever you make a decision of an acquisition -- we make mistakes all the time when we go out there. I'm not saying this is a mistake, because (Nishioka) is down at Triple-A. And we're going to end up seeing if we can get (him) resurrected and get him back up here.

"You go out and you evaluate, and sometimes things don't work out the way you planned. It's a part of the game. You've been around long enough to realize when you go out and evaluate baseball players, not everyone is going to hit on. So we've got to do some work with him. Like everybody, you're going to go out and make decisions, and some turn out extremely well, some OK and some not so good. Right now we've got to get him to regroup, get him to relax down there and see if we can resurrect this thing."

It's possible, if not likely, the Twins decided to part ways with Hardy before they attached themselves to Nishioka. But in essence, the swap was Hardy for Nishioka.

Nishioka the mirage

With all due respect to Ryan, the organization's whiff on Nishioka correlates quite strongly with Hardy. It was a hard lesson learned in selling low.

It was impossible to predict Nishioka could possibly be as bad as he was. The broken leg clearly had some impact, and so did his transition to a new country.

Even so, Nishioka's .346 batting average that earned him the batting title in Japan in 2010 was more of a mirage than a trend, as foreshadowed by his .399 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

To put that into context, the major-league average BABIP last season was .295. Only three hitters posted BABIPs higher than .370. Even the speediest of the speedy who spray line drives and beat out infield singles don't post BABIPs anywhere near .399.

Nishioka averaged a .321 BABIP and a .287 batting average in three seasons prior to winning the Japanese batting title.

If the Twins thought they were getting an elite hitter, they were mistaken.

"We're going to find out, because he's going to get every opportunity to show it in Rochester," Ryan said. "It's going to be interesting to see how he does react down there. He might take off. I hope he does. As everybody knows, we've got a big investment in him. ...

"I know he was disappointed. Anybody would be. Coming over here with the credentials that he came over with, I don't think going to minor leagues was in his plan."

It wasn't the Twins' plan either, but the circumstances left them no choice.

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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