After trading shortstop Cliff Pennington to Arizona for outfielder Chris Young and losing Pennington's eventual successor Stephen Drew in free agency to the Boston Red Sox, the Oakland A's once again took to the international market to fill a void.
One year after striking gold with the signing of Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year contract, A's general manger Billy Beane filled the hole at shortstop with the signing of Japanese infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year, $6.5 million contract according to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Slusser also reported that the A's had come close to a trade for shortstop Yunel Escobar earlier this winter before backing out amidst concerns over Escobar's character.
In Nakajima, the A's get a player who will turn 31 next season and has nowhere near the potential upside that the tooled-up Cespedes offered last winter. However, Nakajima comes with a measure of certainty because of his experience playing professionally in Japan, a more accessible venue for scouts and statistical analysts compared to the Cuban League.
Nakajima slashed .311/.382/.451 for the Seibu Lions last year, and hit .310/.381/.474 in his six-year professional career in the Nippon Professional Baseball league.
For statistical comparison, Norichika Aoki came over to the Milwaukee Brewers last season after hitting .329/.408/.467 in Japan, numbers comparable to Nakajima's. Aoki had a very solid rookie year stateside, hitting .288/.355/.433.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Twins signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka prior to 2011 after he had hit .297/.370/.424 in Japan. Nishioka hit only .215 in 254 plate appearances over parts of two seasons with the Twins before earning his release.
Just like with minor league numbers for prospects coming to the show, statistics from Japan are not all that predictive. Thus, in order to get a better idea of what Nakajima will do with the A's, it's better to look at the scouting reports on him.
An executive of one major league club told Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports that Nakajima's range at shortstop is going to be just average "at best," and there are also questions about his arm strength for the position. Buster Olney of ESPN backed up that view via Twitter.
Some teams have wondered if Nakajima can play shortstop in the majors. But OAK needs a shortstop and Nakajima represents best FA solution.
While there are serious questions surrounding his glove, reports on his bat are more optimistic. Earlier this winter, A's manager Bob Melvin told Slusser that Nakajima "looks like a hitter." Rosenthal reported that Ichiro Suzuki, the most successful hitter to transition from Japan to Major League Baseball, predicted that Nakajima would be able to hit in the majors.
Ichiro isn't a scout, but Patrick Newman of FanGraphs scouted Nakajima and wrote,
Nakajima is a good contact hitter who uses the whole field. I see him as a line drive/gap hitter...He’s also gotten better at drawing walks over the last few years...Like many Japanese NPB hitters, he has a complex swing, with a long stride and a lot of leg movement. I think he will shorten up his stride and cut down on his lower body movement in MLB, which will likely cost him some power.
In today's inflated market, the $3.25 million average annual value on Nakajima's contract will be a huge bargain for the A's if he can develop into an average regular at shortstop.
If his bat is good enough for the position but his glove falters, the A's can slide him over to second base and move Scott Sizemore back to third base. In the worst case scenario, Nakajima will become an expensive utility player for the A's.
The A's other options at shortstop were to keep the light-hitting Pennington, pay a lot of money for Drew—who is coming off of another down year while struggling to overcome a broken ankle suffered in 2011—or to trade for the mercurial Escobar, who is also coming off of a subpar offensive season.
Given their success in turning up a gem on the international market in Cespedes last winter, the A's were wise to gamble on the cheaper alternative in Nakajima, who should be able to outhit Pennington's tepid .215/.278/.311 batting line from last season.
The Brewers turned up a solid contributor from Japan on the cheap in Aoki last offseason, and the low-budget A's are hoping to do the same thing with Nakajima. The financial risk is tolerable, and the potential reward is high.
Beane has a track record of finding creative ways to add talent at below-market prices, and Nakajima could be the next feather under the GM's cap.