The Yankees have won exclusive rights to negotiate a big league contract with Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. On Thursday, the MLB Commissioner’s Office announced that the Yankees’ $2 million offer topped bids from all of the other clubs participating in the four-day-long silent-auction..
A Nippon Professional Baseball star, Nakajima (click here for a brief scouting report) is currently under contract with the Seibu Lions. In order for the Yankees (or any club) to pluck an under-contract player like Nakajima from his Nippon organization, they’re required to use the posting system (click here for a full explanation). After the Lions agreed to post Nakajima last month, the MLB Commissioner’s Office notified all thirty US franchises that exclusive contract negotiations with the twenty-nine-year-old were available via this four-day silent auction. Along with a handful of other ballclubs, the Yankees bid on a one-month-long, unfettered period of contract negotiations with Nakajima and his agent. If Nakajima inks a deal with New York, the $2 million posting fee will serve as a transfer payment (compensation) to the Seibu Lions.
Though posted NPB players occasionally turn-down the opportunity to play in the big leagues– or they simply fail to agree on a contract with an MLB club (like Hisashi Iwakuma last winter)– Nakajima has expressed an unwavering desire to play American baseball. Before his request was finally granted in November, Nakajima had twice petitioned the Lions to post him in previous offseasons. Last Sunday, he told Japan Times reporters that he was anxious to fulfill his “dream of playing in the majors.”
As a versatile power-hitting infielder, Nakajima fills the Yankees’ need for a utilityman/semi-everyday infielder. He’s a strong hitter and he boasts enough homerun power and bat speed to take his all-around production to the MLB. Blessed with sharp pitch-recognition and polished plate discipline, Nakajima annually ranks among the Pacific Coast League’s top hitters in every meaningful offensive category. He’s posted a .300 or better batting average and at least sixteen home runs and fourteen stolen bases in five his last six seasons. While he won’t make the AL All-Star team, he’s an intelligent hitter and steady-enough fielder to be a Maicer Izturis/Mark Loretta-type super-sub infielder.
The player that replaced former Lions shortstop Kaz Matsui when he signed with the Mets in ’04, Nakajima is familiar with NPB hitter’s spotty track record in Major League Baseball. Though Ichiro and Hideki Matsui managed to live up to lofty expectations, more recent imports like Kaz Matsui, Kosuke Fukudome, Aki Iwamura and Tsioka Nishioka have struggled to transfer their skillset to the big leagues. Nakajima’s annual .300 batting average, twenty-twenty stat-lines, Gold Gloves and Best 9 (the NPB’s All-Star team) selections suggest stardom, though it’s more likely that his skills will play more as a semi-regular utility infielder. His success on the international stage though, gives the Yankees something to be excited about.
Nakajima played an invaluable role for Japan during their 2009 World Baseball Classic title run. He hit an immense .364 with a 1.061 OPS and he led Japan’s club with six RBI in seven games. While Jimmy Rollins won honors (by a narrow margin) as the WBC’s top shortstop, Nakajima was arguably the tournament’s most valuable player. After belting two doubles in Japan’s win over Team USA in the WBC semi-finals, he played a key role for Japan in their championship win over South Korea. After scoring the game’s first run in the third, he broke a 1-1 tie with his seventh-inning RBI single.
According to SI.com‘s Jon Heyman, the Yankees aren’t particularly confident they can persuade Nakajima to sign. Viewed by the Yankees as a bench player and occasional starter– a “role player” – Nakajima’s talent may not garner enough money to make a stateside move that desirable.
If GM Brian Cashman signs Nakajima to a sub-$10 million dollar deal, the Yankees are poised to win big. Considering the dearth of productive shortstops on the open market, even with the $2.5 million posting fee, Nakajima’s price tag is relatively cheap. Red Sox skipper Bobby Valentine, familiar with Nakajima after his recent stint managing in the Pacific League, gave high marks to the veteran shortstop’s defense and hitting. Though many doubt that the twenty-nine-year-old ballplayer is a polished enough fielder to play MLB-caliber defense at the game’s most demanding infield position(s), Valentine has argued otherwise. “He has excellent range to his left,” Valentine told New York Times reporters on Thursday. “He’s a very good low-ball hitter and he’s a real dedicated player.”
For the Yankees, Nakajima could prove to be an important addition both on and off the field. As a capable veteran infielder, he provides vital insurance for an aging Yankees infield. He should help keep Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter healthy by sparing them from playing defense everyday and his veteran batting eye makes him a savvy pinch hitter. Off the field, he could be a useful deadline trade chip, and his presence will free up Eduardo Nunez for trade as well. Possibly his most-vital role however, will be as a human security blanket for a USA-bound Yu Darvish.
Earlier today, superstar Nippon-Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish announced he would use the posting system to make himself available to Major League Baseball teams. One of the most-talented pitchers in professional baseball, Darvish’s rockstar persona, knock-out repertoire and drop-and-drive mechanics bear resemblance to young Giants ace Tim Lincecum. Expected to command a posting fee and contract grand total of over $100 million, Darvish is a hot commodity and plenty of clubs will bid aggressively to win him over.
Cashman and the Yankees might use Nakajima as an anchor to pull Darvish toward New York. Similar to the strategy employed by the Red Sox a few years ago, when they signed Hideki Okajima to help acclimate ace Daisuke Matsuzaka to the MLB, the Yankees could use Nakajima as a recruiting tool. Currently a member of the Nippon-Ham Fighters, Darvish has expressed a strong desire to remain in Japan for the remainder of his career.