October 2, 2012
Nishioka Unsinks His Cost
On March 27, the Twins released Pearce. He signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees two days later, spending all of April and May toiling in the minors. The Yankees, rather than allow Pearce to use his opt-out clause and leave without compensation, traded him to the Orioles. Baltimore placed him on waivers in late July, and the Astros plucked him. Four weeks later, Houston sent Pearce back to the Yankees. And now another four weeks have passed, and Pearce is back in Baltimore. Expect Pearce to serve as an extra pinch-hitting option for the season’s final days. Oh, and given how the Orioles season has played out, for him to hit the division-clinching home run.
Whenever a professional athlete walks away from guaranteed money, we gather around to praise the unselfish act. What we miss is that, sometimes, the act of walking away is selfish. Nishioka requested his release, thereby freeing the Twins of the guaranteed $3.25 million remaining on his contract. Bless his kind soul. Except Nishioka spent most of the year in the minors, and subsequently lost his 40-man roster spot. He had to see the writing on the wall, which said, “Your big-league career is over, you’ll spend the 2013 season in the minors,” and, when he got past the creepiness of the oddly specific message, decided he would return to Japan in order to play meaningful ball.
The alternative has Nishioka walking away from the money because of sympathy. The Twins took a chance on him, shelling out more than $11 million to date, and receiving a .215/.267/.236 performance in return. Perhaps Nishioka felt bad enough to do them a professional courtesy. The relief here is that everyone wins. Nishioka, at age 28, has plenty of time to author a second act in Japan; the Twins get some added financial breathing room; and both get to avoid an ugly situation, akin to the ones played out with Kenshin Kawakami and Kei Igawa.
Nishioka’s selflessness through selfishness affords us the opportunity to consider what went wrong. Applauded for his contact skills and defensive range, Nishioka was, along with Alexi Casilla, to form a middle infield reminiscent of the Little Piranhas days. Instead of pestering the rest of the American League, the pair only annoyed the Twins. Say this about Casilla and Nishioka: they never inspired false hope. Both started the 2011 season poorly. Nishioka broke his leg a week into the season, and failed to hit when he returned two months later. He spent all but three games of 2012 in the minors, though did manage to go 0-12 with a walk and a sacrifice fly during his big-league cameo.
But it’s not that Nishioka failed, players fail all the time regardless of the money and time invested in them, what raises eyebrows is the degree of failure. It’s not as though the Twins were the only team interested in Nishioka: the Giants, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Red Sox reportedly placed bids or otherwise looked into him. Say what you will about a few of those teams, but typically, the player has something to him if that many teams are involved. Perhaps Nishioka failed because of the speed of the American game. Pitchers throw harder, surfaces play slower. Add in the culture shock and it’s not hard to pass off as a reasonable, tidy explanation; although who can be certain?
What is certain is this: the Twins will need to fix their infield again. Lately, the Twins have been using Pedro Florimon at shortstop, rotating Jamey Carroll (who, in a sense, is what Nishioka was supposed to become), Casilla, and Eduardo Escobar at second base, and asking Trevor Plouffe to occupy third base. It’s a bad situation. One the Twins will have to sort out this winter. In a roundabout way, maybe Nishioka will help the Twins solidify their middle infield after all.