By Eriq Gardner //
The Minnesota Twins have a chance to sign Tsuyoshi Nishioka, after winning the exclusive rights to negotiate a contract with the 26-year-old Japanese infielder.
Will Nishioka be a sleeper heading into the 2011 season?
The answer might depend, in part, on Nishioka’s position eligibility. He played shortstop for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, but the Twins are said to be considering him as a replacement for Orlando Hudson at second base. But that’s not set in stone yet. The Twins are also rumored to be exploring trading J.J. Hardy, and many fantasy league service providers could give Nishioka shortstop credentials anyway, thanks to his time spent at the position last year in Japan.
It may seem like a small point, but the difference between second base and shortstop could mean a lot as far as his value in 2011 fantasy baseball.
Talent at shortstop, after all, is extremely thin. Even Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki couldn’t help the league’s top 10 shortstops from posting the fewest amount of runs created in any time since 2006. Compared to their peers at second base and third base, shortstops are clearly are the worst run producers in the infield. (See chart.)
Take a look at the top options at shortstop and you will see a mixture of aging veterans like Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, and Rafael Furcal and a gaggle of slightly younger types like Alexei Ramirez and Stephen Drew who aren’t quite superstars.
Last year in Japan, Nishioka hit 11 HR, had 22 SB, scored 121 times, and put up a .346/.423/.482 slash line. We’d be lying if we claimed to have seen a second of this guy play, but judging by the stats alone, the comparables to Ryan Theriot or Chone Figgins sound reasonable. That might not sound like much. Others make the case there’s a shade of Ichiro Suzuki in him. Again, he’ll have to be graded on a curve depending on where he gains eligibility.
Assuming he does get credit for his ability to play shortstop, he may very well be worthy of early speculation. After the top players at shortstop, the talent curve becomes relatively flat (See chart #2). We believe this means it’s best to either invest a lot on a premium player like Hanley or Tulo or wait until the very end of drafts to secure a shortstop who can come close to average production at a fraction of the price.
Fantasy managers who opt for the latter course will likely want a shortstop who brings some upside. Being an unknown quantity isn’t quite the same as having upside, but Nishioka has at least shown a very good batting eye and an ability to run the bases. The Twins will also have an opening near the top of their lineup with the likely departure of Hudson. Since Nishioka will be slightly off the radar at the opening of the season, the price may be right to gamble on hitting it big with this Japanese import.
For more on more fantasy baseball sleepers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office