Considered along side the other big headlines being made at the Winter Meetings, the Yankees winning bid for the rights to Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima doesn’t seem like a big deal. However, it could signal the beginning of a new strategy designed to circumvent some of the onerous restrictions triggered by the new CBA as well as mitigate some of the difficulty in building a bench behind a strong starting lineup.
In 10 seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions of Japan’s Pacific League, Nakajima posted a line of .302/.369/.475 in over 4,500 plate appearances. According to Patrick Newman, who hosts a website dedicated to Japanese baseball, he is a plus defender with a strong enough arm to play all three infield positions. Although statistics and scouting reports about Japanese players should be taken with a grain of salt, all signs seem to suggest he has the potential to be a solid utility infielder.
As Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter have gotten older, the Yankees have increasingly been on the look out for a versatile infielder with some offensive skill. However, the prospect of playing behind two legendary veterans who, up until recently, seldom took a day off, hasn’t been very appealing to potential acquisitions. As a result , Brian Cashman usually has had to settle on journeymen or minor leaguers, most of who proved to be less than desirable options.
By winning the bid for Nakajima, at the relatively low price of $2 million, the Yankees now get an exclusive negotiating window to hammer out a contract. As Nakajima’s only option if he wants to play in the major leagues this season (and, it’s worth noting that he campaigned for an early posting last year), the Yankees don’t have to worry about their inability to promise him an expanded role. And, if the two sides can’t work out a deal, the Yankees do not have to pay the posting fee. In a sense, it is a riskless option on a talented player who could become a valuable asset in the near future.
Last season, it seemed as if the Yankees were grooming Eduardo Nunez for the role that Nakajima would likely play if he signs a major league contract. Although the team could conceivably carry both players on the 2012 roster (spelling the ending of Eric Chavez’ time in pinstripes), the decision to bid on Nakajima could signal the likelihood that Nunez will be included in an off season deal. At the very least, the potential addition of another versatile infielder would give the Yankees flexibility to make a deal if they aren’t already so inclined.
Nakajima isn’t the same caliber as Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes, two other international players in whom the Yankees are reportedly interested, but his acquisition could be the first example of the team looking overseas to replace some of the opportunities for player acquisition closed by the new CBA. Not only are Japanese players attractive because the posting fee, which deflates the player’s salary, does not count against the luxury tax, but they also have no impact on the bonus pool limits established for those players considered international amateurs. By bidding for the likes of Nakajima, Darvish, and Cespedes, the Yankees can still flex their financial muscle without being penalized by the new rules.
Ultimately, the success of any acquisition, but particularly ones involving unproven major leaguers, will be based on performance. That’s why the Yankees must scout these candidates well. If the team is unable to identify the right players to sign, their ability to exploit the international professional market will be wasted.
Can Nakajima be a quality major leaguer who is able to play multiple infield positions? Presumably, the Yankees’ talent evaluators think so. At a $2 million posting fee and what is expected to be a relatively inexpensive contract, the signing seems like a safe bet. However, don’t be surprised if another, riskier roll of the dice (or two) follows in the near future.