The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports

March 12, 2012

Thoma: Go East, young man — the Nishioka dilemma

— In the ideal 2012 spring training scenario, Tsuyoshi Nishioka would have come to camp healthy and adjusted to American baseball. In the Twins’ ideal world, he would be at the very least pushing Jamey Carroll and Alexi Casilla for playing time in the middle infield.

That, from all accounts, isn’t happening in Fort Myers this month.

Nishioka, as described by the Star Tribune’s LaVelle Neal, is “making a head-scratching play a day” in the field. On Friday, he failed to get out of the way of a baserunner on a force play, then took a throw on a stolen base attempt in front of the base, costing himself the chance to get the out.

Plan A for the infield is Carroll at short and Casilla at second, with Nishioka the frontrunner for the utility infielder role. That isn’t, of course, what the Twins had in mind when they invested some $14 million in the Japanese import. At this time last year, they expected him to solidify one of the middle infield spots for a few years.

Even worse, the utility infielder role itself may be too much for him.

The Twins have three realistic choices right now with Nishioka:

  • Keep him on the major league roster
  • Send him to the minors
  • Release him

There is precedent for a major league team to buy out a Japanese flop’s contract and allow him to return to his comfort level in his homeland. In this case, Nishioka would have to be convinced that the buyout is better than getting the full value of his contract. That may require that he experience the minors — perhaps even the joy of riding the bench in Triple A (or Double A).

OK, let’s say Nishioka isn’t on the major league roster. Who, then, would be?

The immediate first answer is Brian Dozier. But the 24-year-old (turns 25 in May) has just a half season at Double A, no time at Triple A.

Dozier has reportedly been working almost exclusively at shortstop this spring, which fits the suspicion that in the organization’s master plan he is slated to inherit the shortstop job either later this season or next year.

He’s not the Twins’ “next big thing,” as the Pioneer Press’ Tom Powers claimed in a column last week, but he needs playing time, not a one- or two-games a week role on the major league bench. If he’s on the major league roster, he ought to be starting, not sitting.

That may not be a major issue. Carroll is a career utility man, and even if he too has been working exclusively at shortstop this spring, he should be able to adjust quickly to second base if the Twins decide to make Dozier the shortstop immediately.

Another possibility is that Luke Hughes would be the primary back-up middle infielder, with Casilla playing shortstop when the 38-year-old Carroll needs a break. But Hughes reported with a right shoulder injury, and he made a throwing error on Thursday.

And they get desperate enough, Trevor Plouffe, now officially an outfielder, could get more infield time.

Things would be a lot simpler were Nishioka a viable major leaguer. So far, he isn’t.

Edward Thoma is a Free Press staff writer. He is at 344-6377 or at ethoma@mankatofreepress.com. He also has a baseball blog at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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