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FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — he Minnesota Twins assigned struggling infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka to Triple-A Rochester on Monday with hope that the Japanese import can find a groove, build some confidence and relax a little in the minor leagues.
Nishioka was hitting .240 in nine games this spring. After a difficult first season in the United States last year, Nishioka has looked no more comfortable at the plate or in the field with the Twins this spring.
“It’s definitely tough to swallow, but it’s not like it’s getting baseball taken away from me,” Nishioka told reporters through translator Ryo Shinkawa at the Twins spring training complex. “I came from Japan for a challenge at this in this country. So I’m just going to not give up and look for the opportunity to get back up here.”
He was a five-time All-Star, a batting champion and Gold Glove winner in Japan — and a much-hyped addition when the Twins signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million contract before last season. The Twins parted ways with shortstop J.J. Hardy with the belief that Nishioka would be able to step in seamlessly and give them a table-setter toward the top of the lineup and a reliable glove in the middle of the infield.
But after breaking his leg in the first week of the season when he didn’t get out of the way of a sliding runner into second base while trying to turn a double play, Nishioka looked overwhelmed as he tried to keep up with the speed of the game. He hit .226 with only five doubles in 68 games. He also committed 12 errors and in addition to the difficulty turning double plays he had trouble even making the routine plays in the field.
Nishioka reported to his second spring training hoping that feeling more comfortable in the United States would translate to improved play on the field. The Twins signed veteran Jamey Carroll to start at shortstop and planned to move Nishioka into a utility role as a backup all around the diamond.
Yet it took the team fewer than 10 spring games to come to the conclusion that Nishioka was not ready to compete in the big leagues.
“He needs to get playing, in the first place, not sit over here,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “And as I told him, slow the game down to where you’re having fun. Everything he does right now looks like it’s work, and this is a game. We’ve got to get him back to enjoying it.”
Now the 27-year-old finds himself on the outside looking in. The move should shore up infielder Luke Hughes’ shot to make the team but also opens the door for prospect Brian Dozier and veteran Sean Burroughs, who signed a minor league deal in the winter to try to revive his once-promising career.
The Twins also optioned right-hander Carlos Gutierrez and outfielder Rene Tosoni to Triple-A on Monday. Assigned to minor league camp were right-handers Jason Bulger, Luis Perdomo, Daryl Thompson, Esmerling Vasquez and P.J. Walters; catchers Chris Herrmann and Dan Rohlfing; infielder Aaron Bates and outfielder Wilkin Ramirez.
General manager Terry Ryan said Nishioka would play both shortstop and second base with Rochester.
“I thought I’d make this move sooner rather than later to let people get organized, and especially him. You know, now he’s got another transition,” Ryan said. He added: “It’s going to be interesting to see how he does react down there. He might take off. I hope he does. As everybody knows, we’ve got a big investment in him.”
Ryan didn’t rule out looking outside the organization for another backup infielder. He also said the organization doesn’t want Dozier to be a utility man if he’s on the major league roster. The 24-year-old Dozier finished last season at Double-A New Britain.
“We’ve taken a lot of players from Double-A through the years. That’s not going to scare us off, if he looks like he’s mature enough.”
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