Yesterday, the Oakland A's signed Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year deal worth $6.5 million, with an option for $5.5 million for 2015. Nakajima was posted last year and the bidding was won by the Yankees, who couldn't come to an agreement with him. This winter, the A's got a deal done with the veteran. However, despite Oakland filling their shortstop hole in a bit of an unorthodox manner, I'm not sure that this is going to be a slam dunk like many of their moves in the past.
NPB Tracker profiled Nakajima (along with other potential Japanese free agents), and the opinion was that Nakajima probably didn't have enough range to play a solid shortstop at the major league level. The 30-year old Nakajima is a career .302 hitter in the NPB, and he has solid pop and plate discipline for a middle infielder. Last season, Nakajima hit .311/.382/.451 with 13 homers, seven steals, and 52 walks, a stat line which would make him a fantastic option for an MLB team. However, it's extremely difficult to translate a player's performance in Japan to his potential performance in America. In this fantastic piece from last winter by Seattle Sports Insider, the author breaks down the few middle infielders that have come over to America from Japan.
The most recent Japanese midle infielder to come to America was Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who signed with the Twins before the 2011 season. In Nishioka's age 25 season in Japan, he posted a .346/.423/.482 line, homering 11 times with 22 stolen bases and 79 walks. His career in America lasted 71 games over two seasons, with the overmatched Nishioka OPSing .503 with no homers and two stolen bases. Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen with Nakajima, but it's not as if there is a long history of success with Japanese middle infielders coming to the MLB. Nishioka was younger than Nakajima, had a more attractive overall statline, and flopped hard.
Comparing Tadahito Iguchi and Kaz Matsui to Nakajima is even more damning to him. Iguchi was a consistent 20 homer threat with 40 steal speed, while Matsui was a solid 20/20 player. Matsui came to the MLB at age 28, while Iguchi came over at 30. Iguchi had a pair of solid seasons for the White Sox before falling off a cliff at 33 and heading back to Japan, while Matsui had a much-maligned career with the Mets before blossoming into a solid hitter for a couple of seasons and returning to the NPB.
It's a really tricky situation for the A's, because there is nothing set in stone for how Nakajima will perform. The A's can't gauge his performance like they would a minor leaguer because the track record for Japanese infielders coming to the MLB is so brief. Nakajima could be a disaster for the A's like Nishioka was with the Twins. Or, he could put together a solid season like Iguchi did with the White Sox before falling off a cliff. But based on Nakajima's age, his track record, and the questions about his position, I think this move has a bigger chance of going bust for the A's than it has for going boom. However, in a world where Stephen Drew gets $9.5 million guaranteed for one year after a season where he played 79 games with a .657 OPS, maybe Nakajima for $6.5 million over two years is the best possible option for the financially-strapped A's.