Last season, the Oakland A's made a splash in the international free agent market, signing Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year deal. Cespedes quickly became the A's best player and helped lead the team to a surprising AL West title. While no expects Hiroyuki Nakajima to have Cespedes' impact, the A's are hoping that he will be an important part of another playoff team.
If things had gone differently for Nakajima, he would be a major league veteran by now. The Seibu Lions' star had requested to be posted to MLB teams in 2010 but that request was denied. In 2011, the Lions did post Nakajima and the New York Yankees won the posting bid auction. New York envisioned Nakajima as a back-up middle infielder for Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. The two sides were unable to come to an agreement on a contract, however, and Nakajima returned to Japan for the 2012 season.
In 2012, Nakajima hit .311 with 13 homeruns and 74 RBIs in 136 games for Seibu. He is an eight-time All-Star of the Nippon Professional Baseball league and a career .302 hitter in 11 seasons. Over those 11 years, Nakajima has hit 162 homeruns and has stolen 141 bases while posting a .371 OBP.
Like Cespedes, Nakajima has competed on an international stage. Both players were key members of their country's national teams. Nakajima was a member of Japan's 2008 Olympic squad and their 2009 World Baseball Classic team.
The A's are hoping that Nakajima will be a significant offensive upgrade at a position where they received nearly no production in 2012. Last season, A's shortstops Cliff Pennington, Stephen Drew, Adam Rosales, Brandon Hicks and Eric Sogard combined to hit .203/.272/.313 with 12 homers and 16 stolen bases. Pennington, in particular, was solid defensively, but the A's received less production at shortstop than nearly every team in the American League.
Nakajima's deal is a two-year contract with a club option for the 2015 season. If everything works out perfectly for the A's, Nakajima's deal will expire just as top prospect and 2012 first-round pick Addison Russell is ready to make his major league debut. Russell will be playing his first full professional season in 2013 at age 19.
To make room for Nakajima on the A's 40-man roster, Oakland traded outfielder Collin Cowgill to the New York Mets for minor league third baseman Jefry Marte. Cowgill was acquired last off-season as part of the deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks that saw Trevor Cahill land in Arizona.
Cowgill began the 2012 season on the A's 25-man roster, but he lost his playing time when Brandon Moss and Chris Carter emerged at the major league level. A solid defensive outfielder who can play all three positions, Cowgill hit .269 with a 654 OPS in 104 at-bats with the A's last season. In 63 games in the minor leagues (most with Triple-A Sacramento), Cowgill hit .250 with a 673 OPS. He missed several weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered in a game against the San Francisco Giants.
Cowgill should have a much easier path to the big leagues with the Mets than with Oakland. The A's outfield situation remains crowded despite the team's decision to let Jonny Gomes and Jermaine Mitchell go this off-season. The A's acquired centerfielder Chris Young for Pennington and prospect Yordy Cabrera earlier this off-season and still have Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, Moss, Michael Taylor, Shane Peterson and Grant Green as players on their 40-man roster with significant experience in the outfield.
Marte is an interesting prospect. The native of the Dominican Republic signed with the Mets as a 16-year-old in 2007. The Mets moved him aggressively, bringing him over to the States in 2008 to play in the Gulf Coast League. He opened a lot of eyes that season, batting .325 with a 930 OPS in 44 games.
Since that season, Marte has struggled, although he has consistently been playing in leagues where the average age of his competition has been a year or two older than him. Last season, Marte played at the Double-A level and hit .251/.322/.366 with nine homeruns. He was an Eastern League mid-season All-Star. Marte spoke about his 2012 season in this article from our sister site, InsidePitchMagazine.com.
Marte was a participant in the Arizona Fall League in 2011, and he played well in the prospect showcase despite being only 20 years old. He drew praise for his plate discipline from Mets' Double-A manager Pedro Lopez.
"I think his hitting has improved the most," Lopez told InsidePitchMagazine.com. "I know defensively he has improved as well but I think the plate discipline and making sure he doesn't swing at too many pitches out of the strike zone, that is the thing he's done best."
Going into the 2012 season, InsidePitchMagazine.com named Marte the Mets' 16th-best prospect. For their scouting report on Marte from preseason 2012, please click here.