Mackey: Twins still waiting for Nishioka to show if he's a big leaguer
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Believe it or not, one year ago at this time there was very little reason to believe Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka's season would take the nosedive it eventually did.
Spring performances rarely tell full stories, but Nishioka looked comfortable in the clubhouse, comfortable at the plate, and comfortable playing second base -- all in front of a Japanese media contingent that had no fewer than 12 to 15 reporters and cameramen following him daily.
Nishioka finished the spring with a .345/.367/.414 batting line in 58 at-bats, including two doubles, a triple, three stolen bases and solid, sure-handed defense for the most part.
And on March 28, the final day in Fort Myers, Nishioka's strong spring actually prompted manager Ron Gardenhire to say, "I'm not going to say it now, but at the end of the day he might have (a Gold Glove) over here if he plays like he's playing right now."
None of the reporters in Gardenhire's presence disagreed -- at least, not until opening day on April 1 when a groundball bounced off Nishioka's chest in Toronto.
In fairness, Nishioka did look like a completely different player last spring than in the regular season. Having Nick Swisher barrel into his leg in an early-April game at Yankee Stadium likely injected some trepidation that he still hasn't kicked.
Special instructor Paul Molitor was spotted going over basic double play footwork with Nishioka in the clubhouse as recently as last week -- footwork he is still attempting to master, even after playing several years of professional ball in Japan (where baserunners don't slide as aggressively into second base).
Twins decision-makers continue to hope for the best, and they have yet to publicly opine on various "what-if" scenarios. But in reality the Twins are in a tough spot this month with Nishioka, who still looks more like the anxious, over-matched player from last summer than the confident, competent guy from last spring.
Now Nishioka now miss a day or two this week due to a sprained left pinky. It might be fair to wonder whether he has enough job security to sit through such an ailment.
In the eighth inning on Friday for instance, Nishioka missed two plays at second base that weren't ruled errors. First, left-hander Tyler Robertson induced a groundball to the right side of the infield that Nishioka was unable to corral after ranging far to his left. Shortly after that, he made an errant throw while attempting to turn a 5-4-3 double play on a slow groundball hit to third.
"He just needs to eat the ball," Gardenhire said of the errant throw. "That's how he got his leg broke, trying to hang in there too long. He just needs to get out of the way. A slow-hit ball, he's not going to turn two. And the only way he's going to be able to deliver that ball is to clear that base -- either coming forward and all the way across. ... or going backwards. But you can't stay at the bag. You'll get killed. Those are the things he needs to make adjustments to, either going one way or the other."
Nishioka also appeared to be a tick slow Friday on a tag attempt at second base on a perfect throw by catcher Chris Herrmann, who was trying to nab a St. Louis base stealer.
"He took it in front of the bag and tried to sweep," Gardenhire said. "We've gone over and over about straddling the bag and letting the ball carry and putting the glove straight down. We go over that with all of (the middle infielders). ... You can't be quicker than the ball traveling."
At the plate, Nishioka has looked just OK early in spring. He currently has five hits in 18 at-bats (.278), including a triple and one RBI. In Saturday's 'B' game against the Pirates, Nishioka slapped a single through an open hole at shortstop on a hit-and-run -- a good sign.
Of course, two days prior he popped up on a 3-1 pitch in the ninth inning with the tying runs on base.
But even Nishioka's best moments this spring have been unspectacular. And while having an unspectacular first two weeks of spring training means very little to established players, it can mean everything to guys grinding for roster spots -- which is exactly what Nishioka is doing.
The Twins do have the ability to option Nishioka to Triple-A Rochester if they decide he isn't one of their 25 best players out of camp. But that would mean demoting a $15 million asset who is already almost halfway through his $9 million deal.
Right now, the jury is still out, mostly because the Twins have very little depth up the middle after Jamey Carroll, Alexi Casilla, Nishioka and Luke Hughes. Brian Dozier receives considerable praise by people behind the scenes, but there's a sense he needs some Triple-A seasoning. And if he were major league-ready, he'd likely have to play every day, rather than come off the bench as a utility player.
Nishioka himself said in February, "If I don't put up the numbers this year, it might be better to throw it all out."
With that, is it possible he's pressing?
"I don't know," Gardenhire said. "Your guess is as good as mine if he's pressing. We're just trying to get him out there and see if he can play. That's all I'm doing -- putting him out there and seeing if the young man can play, and see if he can rebound from last year."
So far that rebound is still hanging high in the air.