A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'

A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'
December 18, 2012, 6:15 pm
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OAKLAND -- In front of a room stuffed with media, he placed an A's cap on his head and buttoned up a home white jersey with his name and number (three) on the back. He claimed modestly that donning the Oakland Athletics jersey for the first time made him "speechless," but he was anything but that.

As Hiroyuki Nakajima took to the podium flanked by his new general manager and an interpreter, the freshly signed Japanese shortstop quickly won over the media and fan base by delivering an opening statement in English.

"Hi Oakland," he said. "My name is Hiroyuki Nakajima, but you can call me 'Hiro.' I am honored to be here today and thankful for everyone coming today."

You don't often hear an applause at a media conference, but this elicited such a reaction. It was a moment that he was extremely nervous for.

"I actually thought of this opening remark last night and during my sleep I was mumbling it over, and over again," Nakajima said through interpreter Hiroo Nishi. "Just outside that door over there I was just practicing over, and over."

"In my dreams I was practicing it," he added.

He certainly didn't look nervous. Soon thereafter Nakajima stunned those in attendance by saying through his interpreter that he signed with the A's because general manager Billy Beane was "extremely sexy and cool." At the end of the press conference he said -- again in English -- that he wants to learn the "Bernie dance."

Yeah…he'll fit in just fine with the A's loose clubhouse.

Nakajima passed the eye test, the medical tests, and immediately ingratiated himself with the fans and media. But can he play ball? In the end that will be the ultimate factor in deciding if this signing is a successful one.

The thirty-year-old veteran of the Japan Pacific League is an eight-time all-star and has won three Gold Gloves. He has a .302 career average in Japan. He is being counted on to fill the last remaining void on the roster of the defending American League West champions. He will feel the pressure to perform on the game's biggest stage -- Major League Baseball.

The A's feel confident he will be able to succeed in Oakland. They have been watching him closely for years. The A's front office says Nakajima is anything but a backup plan they merely turned to after Stephen Drew was signed by the Red Sox. In fact, assistant general manager David Forst said on 95.7 The Game that Nakajima was in an MRI tube getting his physical done when the news that Drew and Boston agreed on a contract leaked out.

Oakland was interested in retaining Drew's services, but all along they had been meeting with Nakajima's representatives. They spoke at the Winter Meetings and remained in touch.

"We were on him early," Beane said. "The more things we uncovered, the longer we got into the winter, the more we realized this is the guy."

The A's are familiar with making splashy international signings. There were a lot of questions surrounding Yoenis Cespedes when he signed with the A's last offseason, and the Cuban-born slugger now looks like a superstar in the making. It is hard to project or expect Nakajima, who hit .311 with 13 home runs, 74 RBI, 52 walks, and a .382 on-base percentage in 136 games last season in Japan, to be a dominating force like Cespedes. They just need him to play solid defense and provide adequate offensive production from the shortstop position.

The track record for Japanese infielders isn't exactly sterling. The guy Nakajima replaced on the Seibu Lions, Kaz Matsui, had huge numbers in Japan before underwhelming in seven seasons in America. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a batting champion and star in Japan, but flopped with the Twins and was released just two years into his three-year contract. Akinori Iwamura had a few good years with the Rays, but has struggled since. He last appeared in the Major Leagues in 2010 for the A's and hit .129 in 10 games.

Writing a person off because of the shortcomings of others in the past is the type of broad stroke the A's front office doesn't believe in.

"I think that's really individual," Beane said. "To generalize and make that statement is a bit unfair to the individual player."

The experiences Japanese players had in American baseball were also a factor that Nakajima looked into while making his decision to sign with the A's. He reached out to Ichiro Suzuki, and the aforementioned Matsui and Iwamura before making his final decision.

There is reason to believe Nakajima is different. He does have a taste of the big league spotlight, after all. He played in the 2009 World Baseball Classic for the Japanese national team. He also played for Japan in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has, however, elected to sit out the upcoming WBC games because he wants to do everything it takes to prepare for the upcoming season with his new teammates.

"I'm just very, very much excited to go to Oakland's camp as soon as possible," Nakajima said.

Nakajima has 141 stolen bases in 11 seasons. The most bags he has swiped in a single season is 25. Yet, he gave a nod to the A's past and present by mentioning that he can't wait to work with A's great Rickey Henderson, and learn from Coco Crisp during Spring Training.

Much like most of the A's fans have only seen Nakajima in action in Youtube videos, the Japanese shortstop has also admired the work of many of the current MLB infielders from afar. According to Nakajima, there is a highlight reel put together and broadcast in Japan every year containing the best plays from the Major Leagues. He feels a little pressure to perform like the current stars of the game but won't let it change the way he handles himself on the field.

"As much as I want to impersonate and copy those amazing plays, fundamentals are very important," Nakajima said. "I really want to stick to the basics."

Every second of available tape is being scrutinized by scouts, and analysts trying to determine whether or not this 5'11" and 198 pound ballplayer's skills can translate in the big leagues. There are different park factors, different pitchers, and even different baseballs in America. Nakajima doesn't seem concerned that his game will translate. The biggest difference he is worried about?

"The fact that there's not many bathtubs around in America," Nakajima said. "That's one of the possible challenges that I'll have to face."

He has the confidence, the tools, and a sense of humor to back it up. He also has one more thing working in his favor.

"We also think he is sexy and cool," Beane said. "That's what we are about here in Oakland, being sexy and cool."

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