When the Oakland A's signed Japanese free agent shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, there was a little doubt that Oakland believed he had the right makeup to fit in with an energetic and high-energy clubhouse. Najakima event went as far as to call A's general manager Billy Beane "sexy and cool" at his introductory press conference.
The A's brass believes that Nakajima's outgoing personality will help him succeed in his transition to a new league and a new culture.
"One of the things I feel really good about is, it seems like the Japanese players that have come over and succeeded are the ones that have been leaders, have stepped out front and aren't afraid to lead and be the guy that's put in position to potentially fail," A's manager Bob Melvin said at the team's 2013 FanFest. "He's one of those guys from everything I've heard.
"And those are the guys that have been most successful for guys coming over to the States and playing. And that's something that we had an eye on, doing due diligence and talking to people about his makeup, what kind of guy he is."
But as important as clubhouse chemistry was for the A's in 2012, Nakajima's personality can only go so far towards helping the A's repeat as division champions.
Major League teams have struggled to find productive infielders from Japan in recent years, and there's nothing concrete to say the A's will be able to buck that trend with Nakajima. Considering the usual posting fees required to bring over players from Japan, they tend to be less cost-effective than domestic options.
But because Stephen Drew (1-year, $9.5 million to the Red Sox) went for a price far steeper than Oakland was willing to go for a shortstop – paired with the thin free-agent market at the position – Nakajima (who was a free agent and required no posting fee) was deemed the next-best option.
When looking at Nakajima's offensive numbers while in Japan, there's reason to believe Nakajima could struggle against major league pitching. To his benefit, he won't have to do much to outperform A's shortstops from a year ago. Between Cliff Pennington, Drew and a group of others who played the position, Oakland got a dismal .203/.272/.313 offensive line from shortstops – a level that is well below league-average, even for a relatively light offensive position.
And an incentive-laden 2-year, $6.5 million contract leaves Oakland with little risk if they trust the same international scouting department that encouraged the club to land Yoenis Cespedes last offseason at a reasonable price (four years, $36 million).
Through his interpreter, Nakajima mentioned at FanFest the importance of his first major league camp – one he's looking forward to because Spring Training is known to be far less rigorous than preseason camps back in Japan.
If there's a knock on Nakajima, it could be his arm and ability to make plays deep in the hole. Otherwise, he is said to have very good range and hands, with below-average speed for a shortstop. But he makes up for his lack of speed with good instincts on the base paths that allowed him to steal 81 bases from 2008 to 2011 for the Seibu Lions. He will turn 31 late in July, putting him on the backside of his prime, certainly for a shortstop.
Nakajima hit out of the three spot for the majority of his time in Japan, so he shouldn't have a problem transitioning to the two-hole at some point should his performance allow it. But look for him to start the year hitting in the bottom-third of the A's lineup. His .310/.381/.474 career slash line makes him one of the most well-rounded hitters for an infielder brought over from Japan. He's hit 20 or more home runs in three seasons.
As with any other rookie, Nakajima's ability to adjust to major league pitching will prove paramount to his success.