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Position/Role Battles: The Twins' Second Baseman

Newly signed international players have a habit of being drafted at least a couple of rounds earlier than they should by fantasy owners eager to look smart by claiming the next Ichiro (keep this in mind if you want to draft Yoenis Cespedes this year).  Tsuyoshi Nishioka was an example of this phenomenon last spring, though admittedly, there are worse risks to take than drafting a then-26-year-old with 2B/SS eligibility coming off a .346/.423/.482 season for the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Nishioka signed a three-year, $9.25MM contract with the Twins in December 2010 and was Minnesota's Opening Day second baseman ... then it was all downhill from there.  Nishioka broke his leg in just his sixth Major League game, putting him out of action for over two months.  When he returned, Nishioka hit just .226/.278/.249 in 240 plate appearances, a performance so underwhelming it created rumors that the Twins could just release Nishioka and move on to other infield options.

Nishioka will still be a Twin in 2012, however, though now he's slated for a utility slot.  A shortstop by trade, Nishioka will backup newly acquired shortstop Jamey Carroll, second baseman Alexi Casilla and even third baseman Danny Valencia, as Nishioka will take a few reps at third during Spring Training.

So why am I writing about an unproven utility infielder in a fantasy column?  Because, as Nishioka may have been slightly overvalued last season, he could be an undervalued asset for this season.  Utility tag aside, there is definitely room for him to regain the starting second base job.

Casilla's fantasy value is largely tied to his basestealing prowess (50 steals in 58 attempts), as his inconsistency at the plate has led to frustration for both his fantasy owners and the Twins.  Ironically, Casilla has entered each of the last two seasons in Nishioka's current situation --- penciled in as a backup but with room to possibly win a starting role.  Casilla indeed won the shortstop job last spring and hit .260./322/.368 (plus 15 steals) in just 365 PAs, thanks to hamstring injuries.

As we saw last season when Casilla lost playing time to Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes, Ron Gardenhire is perfectly willing to sit Casilla should he struggle again.  The door is open for Nishioka to force a platoon or even win the job outright.  Nishioka and Casilla are both switch-hitters and it's unclear if a traditional platoon could work between the two --- Nishioka's 240 Major League PAs are too small a sample size to properly judge, and while Casilla hits better against right-handers, that still amounts to just a career .666 OPS against righties.

I'm not saying that Nishioka is going to hit .346 this season as he did in Japan, but he's now had a year to acclimate himself to Major League Baseball and presumably he won't suffer another hard-luck injury trying to complete a double play.  Nishioka could have plenty of upside and is worth a look as your traditional flier pick in the last round of your fantasy draft.  Carroll is an underrated on-base threat, and I see Valencia having a post-sophomore slump bounce-back year, so Casilla is the best bet in the Minnesota infield to lose his job.  Casilla's history of inconsistency will probably open the door for Nishioka at some point in 2012, so you could find yourself with a starting second baseman at a very cheap price.



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