I’m not the first to go on record as thinking about this idea. A poster at Royals Review, loyal2sdad, got the first thoughts out there from the Royals side of things. I’m not a follower of Japanese baseball and doubt I really ever will be, but there’s no question that even after Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, there’s untapped talent in the land of the rising sun.
The subject of this attention is Chiba Lotte Marines middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka is expected to be posted after Saturday, according to Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times. That means that any major league team can bid on the rights to negotiate a contract with the 26 year old.
I don’t mind telling you, I think it’d be a good idea to at the very least consider the idea of going after him. Here’s why:
First of all, two players have surpassed 200 hits in a season in the Pacific League. One of them is Ichiro, and the other should be obvious. In 2010, Nishioka hit .346/.423/.482. His career numbers stand at .300/.366/.463 so he’s been lucky this season, and while it’s difficult to directly translate Japanese league statistics to the major leagues, it’s safe to say he can handle himself at the plate.
While not as fast as Ichiro, Nishioka stole 22 bases in 33 attempts and has 93 steals in 138 attempts in the last four seasons (baseball-reference only has batting stats back to 2007). He’s a switch hitter and has won Japan’s version of the gold glove three times, twice at shortstop and once at second base. He’s regarded as an elite fielder up the middle and though some suspect he may have to play second in the major leagues, Bobby Valentine has said he thinks he could handle an everyday shortstop position in the majors.
He’s a slap hitter, more likely to hit a lot of singles in the mold of Ichiro, and that may translate better than players like Akinori Iwamura who was a slugger in Japan but couldn’t produce the same power in the states. A speedy player who can steal bases (though at a lower than desired percentage) would make a valuable leadoff hitter. With solid range and instincts in the field, playing him at shortstop would be a great fit for a team that has a gaping hole at the position.
Further, a smaller market team sometimes has to take a gamble to make up the difference on contenders who can attract solid free agents. The Royals are staring down the barrel of another season of Yuniesky Betancourt who, despite his career year in 2010, isn’t going to inspire any more confidence than he ever did since he came over from Seattle. The Royals aren’t exactly solid at second base either. Mike Aviles is likely to start there in 2011, unless he’s manning third base with Chris Getz at second. Johnny Giavotella is impressing in the Arizona League and looks like he could be a solid regular at second in a couple of years, and Christian Colon had a reasonable season given that he made a big jump from college to High A baseball.
But both Giavotella and Colon are a couple of years off. Even though the Royals won’t be contending in 2011, the hope is they start taking those steps in 2012 and it would be easier to have a shortstop in place before then, and Betancourt isn’t the answer. I see Nishioka as a worthy gamble to bring in a young, slick-fielding shortstop with speed and who makes great contact at the top of the order. With him in place, the Royals would have one less worry in the infield and improve their defense at a premium position. Nishioka would be 27 at the start of the 2012 season with plenty of years ahead of him.
Now, the elephant in the room…money. When Matsuzaka came over from Japan, his posting cost the Red Sox $51 million dollars, an obscene amount, just to negotiate. Before any contract was drawn up, the Red Sox had spent $51 million. Nishioka isn’t hyped to the extent that Matsuzaka was in 2007, but he’ll still cost something. The posting rights may be over $4 million for Nishioka, according to Tom Krasovic. Jason Coskrey suggested it could be in the $8-10 million range due to the shortstop’s age and a thin middle infield market.
The Royals will be paying Betancourt $4 million in 2011 and are on the hook for at least $2 million in 2012 if they buy out his option. They won’t find a trading partner, so that money is spent. Should Yuni’s option get picked up by the Royals, he’d cost $6 million, so buying him out, theoretically, saves Kansas City $4 million. If they can buy his rights for $4-6 million, the Royals should go for it. A solid hitting shortstop with great defensive skills in the majors would likely be in the $10 million range salary-wise as it is, so if they could pay Chiba Lotte $5 million for his rights and sign him at $3-5 million a year for say four years, they’d have him rostered through 2014, right in the middle of what could be the wonder years in Kansas City.
I envision a Moustakas-Nishioka-Giavotella/Colon-Hosmer infield, and I like the idea. Even better, Nishioka has years of experience as a professional hitter and is still only 26.
I’ve outlined that it’s a worthwhile effort for the Royals to make, though it’s unlikely they’ll go through with the opportunity. Nishioka says he’d prefer to play in San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego and though he has no say in who wins the rights to negotiate, he’s under no obligation to sign with a team (that I’m aware of, at least). Bobby Valentine also described Nishioka as a player with “style issues: positive and negative . . . he likes to be noticed.” Confident, ambitious, and with a flair for the artistic, Nishioka “wants to be the best short stop [sic] player in the world” as he says in a video interview.
I have to say, Nishioka in Royal blue in the middle of Kauffman stadium turning two or stealing second base would look pretty good to me.