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The New Guy: Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Not happy with the free agent options, the Twins went abroad to solve their middle infield woes, winning the bidding for and signing 26-year-old Tsuyoshi Nishioka. He’s coming off a huge year with the Chiba Lotte Marines, hitting .346/.423/.482 with 11 HR and 22 SB (but 11 CS). He’s hit at least .300 in three of the last four years, double-digit homers in each of the last three years, and 20+ steals in four of the last five years. That’s all well and good, but it tells us nothing about how he’ll perform with the Twins in 2011 or, more importantly, his fantasy value.

Here’s what Patrick Newman, resident NPB guru, had to say about Nishioka’s bat this past November

After a career filled with nagging wrist, knee and neck injuries, 2010 was the first season that Nishioka was healthy enough to play a full, 144-game schedule, and he responded with a career year. Notably, he lead the Pacific League in hits with 206, becaming the second Pacific Leaguer to surpass the 200 hit mark (the first was someone you’ve heard of). He posted a career highs in all three slash categories, at .346/.423/.482 easily eclipsing his previous bests of .300/.366/.463. Nishioka’s batting average was backed by a robust .389 BABIP, so regardless of what league he plays in next year, it will remain to be seen whether his 2010 performance was the result of luck, a genuine step forward, or good health. My guess is that a little of each was involved. Nishioka is not much of a home run threat, but has good speed and will leg out the occasional triple, and swiped 22 bases in 33 attempts last year. He is a switch hitter, who hit well from both sides of the plate last year (.387 as a righty, .329 as a lefty).

Newman goes on the compare Nishioka to a Ryan Theriot/Chone Figgins type, and that certainly has fantasy value. ZiPS frickin’ loves him for next year, projecting a .281/.337/.403 batting line with seven homers and 38 steals. The steals alone would get him drafted pretty high, probably no lower than Tier 3 of our 2B rankings. CAIRO is a slightly more pessimistic (in terms of AVG and SB), calling for .273/.346/.400 with ten homers and 19 steals. Jesse at Twinkie Town came up with .284/.342/.406 with eight homers and 22 steals, almost a mash-up of ZiPS and CAIRO.

If we’re going to take our man Patrick at his word, then let’s check out some projects for Theriot and Figgins real quick (Theriot — Figgins)…

Bill James: .277/.340/.339, 3 HR, 18 SB — .277/.360/.348, 3 HR, 32 SB

Marcel: .275/.336/.341, 4 HR, 18 SB — .268/.353/.340, 4 HR, 34 SB

Fans: .276/.331/.332, 2 HR, 21 SB — .282/.362/.343, 2 HR, 41 SB

Figgins remains an strong fantasy option because of the steals, but I see Theriot is more of a role player. A guy to stash on the bench or use when Jose Reyes makes his annual trip to the disabled list. If we project Nishioka right between those two, we’re looking at a .275-ish average with anywhere from 20-30 steals. The transition to not just MLB, but the United States can be scary, so I’m leaning towards the low end of that spectrum, more like .265 with 15-20 steals. Remember, Kaz Matsui annihilated NPB but couldn’t hit a lick in the bigs.

Nishioka has both 2B and SS eligibility in Yahoo! leagues (not sure about ESPN or CBS or whatever else is out there), so he offers some versatility. I’m intrigued enough by the stolen base potential, and I don’t worry too much about the Target Field effect because power isn’t his game. That said, I’m going to play it cautiously with Nishioka come draft day. I’d rather wait it out and monitor his progress in April before pouncing, though I do think he’s definitely a nice guy to take a flier on in the later rounds. I’m just a little conservative with newcomers from Japan, that’s all.