J-SLANTED: Trusting in Good/Bad Potential

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By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Contributor

So much for Daisuke Matsuzaka coming back to save the Red Sox season. He’s fast approaching the major league enforced 30-day maximum rehabilitation assignment and according to his manager Bobby Valentine, he’s not ready. His deadline is next Wednesday.

Matsuzaka

Matsuzaka has pitched six innings in only one of his rehab starts, and has struggled with command. While this sounds a lot like typical Dice-K pitching, I’m going to side with whatever Valentine thinks. He does after all know a thing or two about handling Japanese pitchers with seven seasons managing in Nippon Professional Baseball.

“I don’t think he’s all that close,’’ Valentine told Boston.com. “He might be, but I don’t think he is. I don’t think he’s all that close to pitching in the major leagues.’’

Another player who doesn’t appear all that close to returning to the majors is Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. It’s unfortunate because due to a combination of bad luck and bad management, it seems like the Minnesota brass have screwed the pooch in their handling of Nishioka.

This is one of those “adjustments” that pundits speak of when they are trying to project Japanese imports. What do you do with a professional who had success in the NPB but doesn’t seem to get it in the MLB?

When Dice-K started to really struggle after his second season, the Red Sox brass went about telling him how to “fix” himself. Change his diet. Change his offseason regiment. Change his game-to-game warmup. Etc. There was major disagreement between Matsuzaka’s camp and Red Sox brass that resulted in quite a bit of negative publicity.

The New York Mets did the same thing to Ryota Igarashi before he had even pitched in a game. Of course, he struggled with his new delivery, got rocked over 70 innings of work (5.75 ERA), and is currently with the Las Vegas 51s working his way back to the MLB.

Nishioka appears to be in a similar predicament. After breaking his leg two weeks into his first MLB campaign, Nishioka worked hard to get back and managed to appear in 68 games for the Twins. He batted .226, far below what was expected of him when he signed a three-year $9 million guaranteed contract. But it was only 68 games. Anybody would struggle coming back from a major leg injury, let alone someone who just got called to the majors.

Today, Nishioka is stuck in Triple-A Rochester having his swing adjusted by the team’s hitting coach Tom Brunansky.

“Nishi’s deal was trying to keep his head still because he always had that leg kick,” Brunansky said. “When that leg kick came, his head would go forward. He’s eliminated that leg kick and is keeping a solid base. Now he looks pretty solid at the plate.”

Nishioka is currently batting .206 in 18 games with Rochester.

Far be it from me to pass judgment. Brunansky makes a living adjusting the swings of pro athletes. But a 68-game stint in the MLB following a major injury is hardly a large enough sample for me to start adjusting a player’s swing. Especially a player who has six full pro seasons under his belt, who drew comparisons (no matter how off-based) to Ichiro Suzuki, and who used that same leg kick to hit .346 and capture the NPB batting crown just two years ago.

While I was never a big fan of Nishioka’s potential over here in the States, I thought the Twins management would be smart enough to exercise a bit of patience with him. Perhaps a lack of patience is why they are struggling this year.

Ishikawa

Patience has been a virtue that Travis Ishikawa has had to learn and it appears to be paying off. Since winning a World Series as the San Francisco Giants starting first baseman, Ishikawa has seen the penultimate highs the Show can offer, as well as the absolute lows. He spent the 2011 season in the minors where he hurt himself and hadseason-ending shoulder surgery a few weeks before heading into free agency.

As discussed last week, Ishikawa now has the opportunity to take over as the fulltime first baseman with the injury of Mat Gamel opening up playing time. Gamel had big shoes to fill before he underwent season-ending surgery on his ACL. Prince Fielder was kind of a big deal in Milwaukee. Now, Ishikawa steps into those princely shoes.

When comparing numbers side by side (usually not a full or fair indicator of a player’s impact—but fun no less!) Ishikawa stacks up pretty well against Fielder. In only 50 at-bats, Ishikawa has five doubles, four homeruns, and 12 RBI with a .260 average. Fielder, who signed a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers in the offseason, has six doubles, five homeruns and 18 RBI while hitting .292 in 143 at-bats. Not bad, considering Ishikawa is making $525,000.

I might add, the divide between the level of their respective glove work is about the same difference between their salaries.

Opportunity is king.

Just ask Ishikawa’s teammate Norichika Aoki who has struggled to find consistent playing time with the Brew Crew. He’s had a spot start here and there, but has mainly been used as a pinch hitter. In that role, he’s hitting .286 with a .604 OPS and a pair of RBIs over 24 plate appearances. Though his average is lower, Aoki’s actually been much better as a starter. In 35 plate appearances, Aoki is batting .226 with a .734 OPS and has a double, triple, homerun, and three RBIs in eight games.

But the Brewer’s outfield is crowded with Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan vying for time, even with Gamul pushing Corey Hart into spot duty at first base.

Morgan’s not hitting well anywhere. He’s struggling as a starter (.203 average and a .474 OPS), getting murdered by left-handed pitching (.198 average) and his supposedly game-changing speed has been slow to reveal itself. Their defense is similar enough, but he’s a year older than Aoki. Not sure why he continues to play.

That being said, like most things in this country, the answer probably has to do something with money. After all, Morgan is making $2.3 million, more than double Aoki’s salary.

Let me reiterate, none of the trio are doing fantastic, but Aoki has clearly been the best of the bunch when given the opportunity as a starter. He’s got several years of pro experience on Gomez and is putting up far superior numbers to Morgan.

I’d like to close with a brief sermon on money. The love of it. How it is the root of all evil. The Los Angeles Times ran a piece on Thursday concerning how very close to the ledge Angels manager Mike Scioscia walks.

Having jumped out to a scalding 17-22 record (feel the sarcasm), the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim look like a team in disarray. From Torii Hunter calling out Scioscia, to Mr. $240 million man Albert Pujols criticizing former hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, to the Angels’ new General Manager Jerry Dipoto firing Hatcher and putting further strain on an already taut relationship with Scioscia, we could be looking at the end of the Scioscia era.

I wasn’t thrilled about the fat contract for Phat Albert. Nobody deserves a 10-year deal—but especially no one over 30. I don’t care about his Hall of Fame credentials. If you are already a lock for the Hall of Fame, there’s no possible way you can get any better at this point in your career, let alone five, six, seven years down the line. (For more happy thoughts, Pujols’ contract is backloaded.) How’s that A-Rod deal working out?

The Angels sold their collective soul to the devil when they went away from what has made them special the last decade. Growing talent on the farm. Playing aggressive small-ball. Relying on speed instead of power. Trusting defense over offense. Investing in pitching. Letting Scioscia do his thing.

Can the Angels turn it around this season? Probably. Their starting rotation has that much potential and Pujols, despite his .214 average and pair of homeruns, is too good to be this bad for much longer. But, moving forward? The Angels, no matter how much they want to think they are in Los Angeles, are really a small market club paying big market dollars for a cast of players that aren’t even close to deserving that kind of money.

Well, the Dodgers are looking pretty good—young talent coming up the pipeline, a new ownership, a bit of charisma and Magic, and a true MVP-worthy player in Matt Kemp who has HOF-potential, but not the resume…yet.

The Angels are in trouble. They’re stuck with Pujols, for better or worse, for the next nine and a half years. As nears 40, there will increasingly be other, far cheaper alternatives in both the majors and the minors who will be capable of putting up the same types of numbers he will at literally a fraction of the cost.

Will he be better next year? At this point, he can’t be too much worse.

The darker, more frightening thought is projecting long term. Don’t be surprised if about $200 million of that $250 million contract looks like money burning…

Make that an inferno if they fire Scioscia.

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