MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Twins gave Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka a warm welcome, trying to make Target Field feel a little less foreign.
Nishioka was introduced at a news conference Saturday afternoon. He signed his $9.25 million, three-year contract, which includes a club option for the 2014 season, at a podium in a room packed with media, team employees and other supporters.
Twins president Dave St. Peter, manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Bill Smith flanked Nishioka on one side with his translator, David Yamamoto, and his agent, Rick Thurman, on the other.
Smith repeatedly spoke of the family atmosphere in the organization and the clubhouse and how the Twins focused on making Nishioka and his wife feel comfortable on their visit.
Gardenhire even clutched a pocket-size blue book, "Survival Japanese," as he spoke of his daughters helping him learn a new language in order to better communicate with his new middle infielder.
"We have great chemistry on this club," Smith said. "In talking with Gardy and talking with a few of our players, we are very confident that our players are going to embrace Tsuyoshi as a new player but as a teammate and a partner on this team. We all have the same goals."
Nishioka asked to introduce himself in English, offering a halting but complete sentence before flashing a big smile: "I'm excited to be a part of the Twins family. Thank you."
The 26-year-old Nishioka led his Japanese league last season with a .346 batting average. He'll wear No. 1.
"I'm very honored that a lot of media is here today to cover me," he said through his translator. "I'm very grateful, but I do understand that if I don't perform a lot of media coverage will go away. So I hope I keep a lot of media here throughout the season."
Minnesota's first major acquisition from Japan, Nishioka had 32 doubles, eight triples, 11 home runs, 59 RBIs and 22 stolen bases in 596 at-bats and 144 games for the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball last season. He also scored a league-best 121 runs.
He said he realizes those numbers will be tough to duplicate in the majors, but he said he's focused on helping the Twins win, not on his statistics.
"I believe my job is to step on home plate as much as possible," Nishioka said through his translator. "To make that happen, whether it'd be walks, hit by pitch, getting knocks, I like to do my best to get on base to be able to do that. I feel I have the skills to help this team achieve that goal."
The Twins submitted the highest bid, $5,329,000, to Chiba Lotte for the negotiating rights to Nishioka, who will be paid $3 million for each of the next three seasons. The Twins can exercise a $4 million option for 2014 or pay him a $250,000 buyout.
Smith said scouts who follow Japanese baseball were aware a couple of months ago that Nishioka might be posted for major league offers by the Marines, and the Twins targeted him as a way to meet their offseason goal of adding more speed to the lineup.
With shortstop J.J. Hardy traded to Baltimore and second baseman Orlando Hudson signed with San Diego, the Twins think they'll be faster and more diverse offensively with Nishioka and Alexi Casilla manning the middle infield. Nishioka is penciled in as the No. 2 hitter in the lineup.
Gardenhire said he'll figure out who plays where during spring training and gauge Nishioka's arm strength and ability to make the double-play pivot.
"I think he can catch the ball. Now I just want to see what works," the manager said.
Nishioka said he has no preference about position.
"I'm still a rookie here. I don't think I have any say here or have a preference in playing second base or shortstop," he said through his translator. "I'm preparing for both. I'll do whatever the manager tells me. If the manager wants me to be a ballboy, I'll do that as well."