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Minnesota Twins GM on Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s struggles: ‘Now I have a decision to make’

John Shipley, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –

Tsuyoshi Nishioka will be wearing a Twins uniform when the team starts a three-game series against Tampa Bay on Friday, Aug. 10, at Target Field. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. After a disastrous return to the majors that the former Japan league all-star called “a new start,” it appears his time in Minnesota is nearing an end.

At least for this season.

With third baseman Trevor Plouffe nearing a return from a thumb injury, and infielder Eduardo Escobar eligible to return to the big leagues, it doesn’t make sense to keep Nishioka in Minnesota — not after he went 0 for 12 with three errors in his first three major league games of the season this week in Cleveland.

“We need to find out about the guy, so we brought him up to play him,” general manager Terry Ryan said. “We’ve done that. It didn’t work out well.”

Ryan spoke Thursday, Aug. 9, less than 24 hours after Nishioka played a game that may have shown the Twins all they needed to see. Charged with an error when he failed to get an out on a potential double-play ball, Nishioka also made a bad throw home that allowed a runner to score and lost a pop fly in the sun, which wouldn’t have been so terrible if he hadn’t inexplicably walked away from it as the ball landed 10 feet in front of him.

“Well, he certainly showed some panic when he turned his back on the pop fly he dropped,” Ryan said. “That’s not acceptable.”

Nishioka, 28, was an award-winning middle infielder with Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines who

won the 2010 Nippon Professional League batting title with a .346 average and 206 hits. After paying Chiba Lotte $5.32 million for exclusive negotiating rights, the Twins signed Nishioka to a three-year, $9.25 million contract in November 2010.

The smiling faces and handshakes captured for posterity represented the last good day of the relationship. Though he reported to Fort Myers, Fla., early for his first spring training, he worked exclusively with personal trainers until the day he had to report. Even when hitting coach Joe Vavra persuaded him to walk over and take batting practice with the team, Nishioka would not wear Twins gear, which didn’t sit well with coaches or teammates.

Nishioka made the 2011 Opening Day roster, but in the second series, he had his leg broken by Nick Swisher while trying to turn a double play at Yankee Stadium. Limited to 68 games — he also was shut down early because of an oblique injury — he batted .226 with five doubles and 14 runs scored, and committed 12 errors.

After vowing to train harder and be ready for spring training 2012, Nishioka was sent to the minors on the first day of cuts. In 84 games at Class AAA Rochester this season, he hit .245 with 13 doubles and 31 RBIs. He was recalled to take the roster spot of third baseman Danny Valencia, traded to the Boston Red Sox last Sunday.

Red Wings third baseman Sean Burroughs (back) and shortstop Pedro Florimon (hand) were unavailable, and Escobar, acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the Francisco Liriano deal July 28, could not be recalled because he had just been optioned and it wasn’t an injury situation. So with few, if any, other options, Red Wings coaches told Ryan they believed Nishioka was ready for a shot and the Twins called him up to play against the Indians at Progressive Field.

That he wasn’t ready was immediately obvious. Nishioka turned the first ball he got, a hopper by leadoff hitter Jason Kipnis, into a parody, first missing the ball, then falling as he made an errant throw.

He later was charged with an error on a backhander up the middle and missed a throw from third baseman Jamey Carroll that should have forced a runner at second. He drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly as the Twins rallied against closer Chris Perez for a 7-5 victory on Tuesday, but earlier was late covering first base on a bunt attempt and was consistently out of position on relays.

“Obviously some mistakes were made on where he’s at,” Ryan said. “That’s not good; that’s not what we expect here. He’s not the first guy to not show what he’s done at Triple-A. Heck, (right-hander) Liam Hendriks has the same issue; he’s dominated that league and then he comes up here and is a different guy. Same with Nishi. Now I have decision to make, and you know I’ll make one.”

Right now Ryan is waiting on Plouffe, who hasn’t played since jamming his thumb on July 20. Plouffe took live batting practice Thursday at Target Field and is expected to take BP with the team before Friday’s game against the Rays. If the team believes Plouffe can play, and won’t need a rehab assignment, Nishioka probably will be optioned back to Triple-A.

If Plouffe can’t play, Ryan could option Nishioka to Rochester and recall Escobar, but Ryan said Thursday: “I don’t think he’s ready. He needs at-bats, although he might be a little bit more ready with what’s going on here. I’ll admit that.”

The Twins also could waive or designate Nishioka for assignment, amounting to his outright release, but that seems unnecessary because he has options and the Twins don’t need a 40-man roster spot right now. Also, because he’s under contract to Minnesota, the Twins could recoup some money if Nishioka decided he was done with major league baseball. For instance, he could not return to Japan next season unless a team there bought his contract from the Twins.

Ryan, of course, will not discuss these options. The issue now is whether Gardenhire believes Nishioka can help the team win this weekend. If not, he’ll be benched. Ryan will not, and has not, given the manager an edict, he said.

“Gardy and I are both in this together, OK?” he said. “We both needed to find out, and as bad as it ended up, eventually we’ll know what we’ve got here, OK? It didn’t work out, so I’ll make a decision.”

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