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Updated: August 19th, 2011 8:57pm
Mackey: Twins' shortstop position open for competition in 2012

Mackey: Twins' shortstop position open for competition in 2012

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins went into last offseason hoping to inject speed into a lineup filled mostly with station-to-station mashers, which is why the front office elected to pursue Japanese Pacific League batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Needless to say, things haven't gone according to plan. And that's probably putting it mildly.

Along with missing two months due to a broken leg, the 27-year-old is hitting just .220/.261/.245 with five extra-base hits in 214 plate appearances as a Twin, and even though he has shown wide range and a solid arm, his defense has left a lot to be desired. Not to mention, Nishioka has only two stolen bases while being caught four times.

Those struggles are magnified by the fact that J.J. Hardy, whom the Twins traded in December, has 23 home runs for the Baltimore Orioles.

Unable to call for a mulligan, the Twins are left to hope Nishioka can somehow figure things out over the season's final six weeks. The problem is, if he doesn't, there's not much the Twins can do. Nishioka is signed through 2013, making $3 million a year, and the team already spent about $5 million on the posting fee to acquire his rights.

Even with the payroll obligation to Nishioka, is it a stretch to suggest there may be some open competition for starting jobs in the middle infield heading into 2012?

"That's not a stretch at all," manager Ron Gardenhire said Friday in an interview with 1500 ESPN. "Absolutely. I think everybody has realized that. We're going to give some people some looks and hopefully find some infielders that can come up and step up and create some competition. Nothing's a given.

"I've already talked to (general manager Bill Smith) about that. And you know what? Nothing's going to be set. We hope Alexi (Casilla) can get back out there. I think he's handled second base really, really well. But we have to be solid up the middle, and you can't continue to play like we've played. ... You lose games because you can't catch the ball. You've got to make some good plays too, and we really haven't done enough of that."

Nishioka's inconsistent fielding may have hit a season-low last Friday in Cleveland when he botched three groundballs in one inning and failed to cover second base in another, leading to starting pitcher and groundball inducer Carl Pavano taking frustrations out on a water cooler in the dugout.

"You haven't seen too many performances like that in the big leagues," Gardenhire said. "Nishi had a real hard time. And then mentally, I think it really messed him up out there to where he didn't even cover second base on a groundball that should have went to second base. He left the clubhouse really quick, showered, he was very frustrated and embarrassed I'm sure, and rightfully so. It was definitely not a performance that we've seen around here too often. I was flustered, to say the least."

The front office is somewhat flustered too. General manager Smith and company have been shuffling pieces around at shortstop and second base seemingly every year -- from Jason Bartlett and Luis Castillo to Orlando Cabrera and Nick Punto to Hardy and Orlando Hudson.

But even though Nishioka was signed to a long-term deal to help end that game of musical chairs, the Twins' brass will defer to Gardenhire in this case.

"First and foremost, I expect him to be a better player next year," Smith said of Nishioka. "He's only (27) years old. He's not a 31-year-old veteran. ... He broke his leg in the sixth game of the season, his wife had a baby. They've been through about every change that you can go through, and so we certainly expect him to come back next year much calmer, much more settled down and be a better player. All that said, we hope there's a competition at every position. ...

"There was no pressure on Gardy all year with this. ... We provide the players and he uses them as he sees best."

Good thing nobody is providing Gardenhire sharp objects to go along with some of those players this season.

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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