Is Hiroyuki Nakajima worth another look?

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

One of the Yankees’ most surprising non-moves last offseason was their pursuit of Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. They won his negotiating rights with a $2.5M bid — team officials gave the impression it was a token “let’s see what happens” bid and were surprised when they won — but failed to reach an agreement on a contract. Back to the Seibu Lions went Nakajima, who hit .311/.382/.451 with 13 homers in 2012, right in line with his career averages.

The 30-year-old Nakajima is a true free agent this winter and is again looking to come over to MLB, and in fact he’s already being courted by the Diamondbacks. The Yankees liked him as a utility man last winter and obviously felt he was worth a $2.5M posting fee, so could they get involved again a year later? We know they’re seeking an upgrade over Jayson Nix, a utility man who can play 100 games between shortstop and third base next season, so if nothing else they should at least check in.

There isn’t much info about Nakajima out there, so we don’t know much about him other than the fact that he’s a right-handed hitter who’s posted decent strikeout (15.0 K%), walk (8.3 BB%), and power (.157 ISO) rates over the last three seasons. He’s played shortstop almost exclusively during his career with the Lions, though he was open to the utility role for New York last year. That’s all I know about Nakajima right there.

In a recent piece on ESPN, Ben Lindbergh spoke to former Dodgers GM Dan Evans — he signed Kaz Ishii prior to 2002 — and Japan Times journalist Jason Coskrey about why some Japanese players (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui) are better able to make the transition to MLB than others (Kaz Matsui, Tsuyoshi Nishioka). Here’s a quick recap of the factors they cited…

  1. Ability to handle an MLB-caliber fastball. This one seems obvious, but it’s often taken for granted. “Leg kicks are prevalent [in Japan], but they can elongate a swing,” said Coskrey. “[MLB hitters] have to deal with pitchers with better stuff pounding the strike zone.”
  2. Don’t be a starter or middle infielder. Starting pitchers are creatures of habit who have to adjust their routine while infielders have to adjust to a new playing surface. Notice how MLB’s most successful Japanese hitters are outfielders (Ichiro, Matsui) while the infielders (Matsui, Nishioka) have faltered. Evans likened it to “taking a golfer out of Florida and asking him to putt on California’s greens for the first time,” which I can’t relate to at all.
  3. Good makeup. The Yankees value strong makeup, but it’s important for a Japanese player coming over to MLB because of the adjustments that have to be made. Not just to the higher caliber of competition either, to a new culture off the field as well. Lindbergh notes how this works two ways, as U.S.-born players who go to Japan tend to struggle the first year as they adjust to a new way of life.

We know Nakajima is a middle infielder, but we have no way of knowing how he relates to numbers one and three. For what it’s worth, Coskrey says Nakajima has “the mental makeup to do well. He’s a guy who’s really open to new things, really open to being coached and the type of player I think won’t really have too much trouble adjusting to the lifestyle.” Can he hit a good fastball though? Your guess is as good as mine.

With Marco Scutaro, Stephen Drew, and Jeff Keppinger expected to land starting jobs somewhere, the crop of free agent utility infielders is pretty barren this offseason. There’s Ronny Cedeno, Ryan Theriot … and that’s pretty much it. The difference between those two guys and Nakajima is that we already know they’re terrible big leaguers, but there’s a chance Nakajima might not be. I don’t think that’s enough to hand him a guaranteed contract, especially not with the 2014 payroll plan looming, but the Yankees should at least put a call in to see if he’s open to being an oft-used utility man behind some Hall of Famers who will give him a chance to win right away.

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Report: Yankees offered Nakajima $1M

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees offered Hiroyuki Nakajima approximately $1M, but the more serious issue was his role. When the announcement was made that the two sides couldn’t reach a deal, we learned that they only offered him a one-year contract. A statement issued by Nakajima’s agent makes it sound like they believe he should be a starter, but apparently no MLB club agrees with that given the lack of bids.

A report from Sponichi (translated) reiterates that Nakajima was okay with the money, but he wanted to become a free agent after the one-year deal while the Yankees wanted to retain his rights for six years like every other player. As a courtesy, MLB typically allows foreign veteran players to be treated as true free agents rather than players with zero service time. Either way, what’s done is done. Nakajima will go back to Japan and the Yankees will look for another bench player elsewhere.

It’s official: Yanks fail to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima

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The Yankees announced that they’ve failed to come to terms on a contract with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. “We unfortunately could not come to an agreement with Hiroyuki,” said Brian Cashman in a press release. “We wish him the best of luck during the upcoming 2012 season.”

We heard the two sides were unlikely to reach an agreement before tomorrow’s deadline just yesterday. Since no deal was reached, the Yankees don’t have to pay the $2.5M posting fee they used to win the 29-year-old infielder’s negotiating rights last month. Jack Curry says they offered a one-year deal and nothing more, reiterating that they viewed him as a bench player. Cashman and the Yankees seemed surprised that they won the bid last month, and it’s fair to assume no other club viewed him as a starter given the lack of a significant bid.

Nakajima hit .297/.354/.433 with 16 homers and 21 steals for the Seibu Lions in 2011, and he’s consistently been a .300 average/15+ homer/15+ steal/50+ walk guy in his career. That was before the new ball drained all of the offense out of Nippon Pro Baseball, however. Nakajima played short exclusively over the last few seasons, and although he expressed interest in signing, he didn’t seem all that enthused about being a reserve. His agent even broached the idea of a sign-and-trade. The infielder will now return to Japan for another year, then become a true free agent next winter.

Report: Yankees unlikely to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima

Via Marc Carig and Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees and Hiroyuki Nakajima are unlikely to agree to a contract prior to Friday’s 5pm ET deadline. He needs to pass a physical before then, so time is running out. The Yankees see Nakajima as a bench player and Carig says they insist on paying him as such. If the two sides can’t reach a deal, the Yankees won’t have to pay the $2.5M posting fee and Nakajima will return to Japan. He’ll be able to become an international free agent next offseason.

Update: Yankees, Nakajima still far apart in talks

Monday: Heyman issued a correction; the deadline is Friday, not Tuesday. I knew it was later in the week, that made more sense based on when the winning bid was announced.

Sunday: Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees and Hiroyuki Nakajima are still far apart in their contract talks. The CBS Sports scribe says the deadline to get a deal worked out is Tuesday, not later in the week like I’d assumed. The Yankees won the infielder’s negotiating rights with a $2.5M bid in early-December.

Andruw Jones agreed to terms on Friday, just two days after we heard the two sides weren’t close to a deal. So yeah, this stuff can come together quickly. Nakajima is apparently “highly motivated” to play in MLB next season, and his agent even broached the idea of a sign-and-trade a few weeks ago. The Yankees haven’t discussed the idea with anyone though. I’m guessing he’ll sign for three years and about $7.5M, and not be traded before the season. Very curious to see how this whole thing plays out.