MINNEAPOLIS -- Last winter, the Twins retooled their middle infield in an effort to improve the 2010 ballclub. And this offseason, the double-play portion of the infield once again is expected to undergo some tweaking. The first of what could be a domino of moves for the Twins' middle infield this winter came last Friday, when Major League Baseball announced Minnesota had placed the winning bid for exclusive negotiating rights with Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka, 26, won the Japanese Pacific League's batting title in 2010 while batting .346 for the Chiba Lotte Marines. A switch-hitter who can play second base or shortstop, Nishioka scored 121 runs and tallied 51 extra-base hits while helping the Marines win their first Japan Series title since 2005. With his 206 hits, Nishioka also became the league's first player to tally more than 200 hits since Ichiro Suzuki.
"He's a good player and he would be a good fit in our organization," said Twins general manager Bill Smith, who declined to comment much on Nishioka since the infielder's rights still belong to Chiba Lotte. The Twins have a 30-day negotiating period to reach an agreement with Nishioka. If no deal is reached, the club doesn't have to pay the posting fee, which is around $5 million. But the fact that the Twins won this bid is a telling sign that they believe a deal can be reached, and it sounds like Nishioka is eager to come to Minnesota as well. "The Twins are a team who are in playoff contention each year," Nishioka told Japanese reporters after the winning bid was announced. "I wanted to go to a strong team." Both Smith and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire have expressed the club's desire to add more speed to its lineup for the 2011 season. With the Twins' outfield projected to remain unchanged for next season and the corner-infield spots set with Justin Morneau at first base and Danny Valencia at third, the club was limited on where it could try to inject speed on the roster. "I think the middle infield is the only place left where we could change that a little bit," Smith said. So it's no surprise that the Twins targeted Nishioka, who has averaged 28 stolen bases over the past six seasons, including 22 steals in 2010. The infielder would also provide the Twins with solid defense up the middle, having won the Japanese equivalent of a Gold Glove at both second base and shortstop. As for how much Nishioka will be seeking in a contract, the expectation is that he could garner a deal similar to the one that Akinori Iwamura received from the Rays in November 2006. The Rays bid $4.5 million to get Iwamura's negotiating rights from the Tokoyo Yakult Swallows and signed him to a three-year, $7.7 million deal. So the feeling is that the Twins could sign Nishioka, who made $1.7 million in 2010, to a three-year deal that's likely worth $3 million or less per year. There are still questions surrounding Nishioka and how his game would translate to the Major Leagues. The 2010 season was a breakout one for the infielder, who has a career batting average of .293 in eight seasons for Chiba Lotte. He has also been limited at times throughout his career by injuries. Although Nishioka primarily played shortstop for Chiba Lotte last season, he might find himself penciled in the Twins' lineup at second base in 2011. Of course that could all depend on how the rest of the infield situation shakes out in the coming days. The Twins will learn Tuesday whether second baseman Orlando Hudson has accepted the club's offer of arbitration. The move to offer arbitration to Hudson, a Type B free agent, came as slight surprise since it had appeared that the Twins were willing to let the second baseman leave via free agency. Right now, the expectation is that Hudson will decline the offer, creating a vacancy at second base while also ensuring the Twins of a supplemental-round pick between the first and second rounds of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. But if Hudson accepts, it could have a ripple effect. On Thursday, the Twins must tender 2011 contracts to all of their unsigned players that are still under club control. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has been considered a non-tender candidate after being limited to just 101 games last season due to a wrist injury and being set for a raise from the $5.1 million he made in 2010. Indications recently have been that the Twins will likely tender a contract to Hardy. But if the club is able to sign Nishioka, then they could trade Hardy to another club and use Alexi Casilla at the other middle-infield spot. The Twins' bid for Nishioka was the first step to perhaps changing up the middle infield for next season, but the coming days and weeks should help to put the 2011 infield picture into better focus.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.