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Nakajima lines a run-scoring single during the final game of the 2009 WBC, which was won by Japan. (Photo: Getty Images)

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.

Hiroyuki Nakajima’s Career Statistics

Source: Nippon Professional Baseball League Official Website

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Hideki Irabu, the first Japanese born player to wear pinstripes, was found dead in his Los Angeles’ home on Thursday, the victim of an apparent suicide.

At his introductory press conference, Irabu tries on the pinstripes he always wanted wear.

When Irabu first came to the United States, he was billed as the Japanese Roger Clemens, but his career yielded more punch lines than punch outs. That’s why it’s easy to forget he was once one of the most coveted international free agents in recent memory.

In the winter of 1997, the San Diego Padres were granted the right to exclusively negotiate with Irabu, who, as a member of the Chiba Lotte Marines, was considered by many to be the best pitcher in Japan. However, Irabu had other plans. He only wanted to play for the Yankees. After much wrangling between the Marines, Padres and Yankees, Irabu was finally able to strong arm his way to New York. At the time, it seemed like a match made in heaven. One of the best international pitchers was bringing his star to Broadway. What could possibly go wrong?

During the All Star break, the Yankees decided that it was time to summon Irabu to the Bronx. Over 51,000 fans packed the Stadium to see his debut on July 10, 1997, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. With the exception of Opening Day and the inaugural interleague series against the Mets, it was the largest crowd of the season, and despite being just a regular season game, the level of anticipation rivaled October.

This was more than I ever dreamed about or imagined for this night. The support of the team is something I can’t compare. I wouldn’t sell what I was able to feel today for anything.”– Hideki Irabu, quoted in the New York Daily News, July 11, 1997

Over 6 2/3 innings, Irabu struck out nine Tigers, each one sending the Stadium crowd into an increasing state of delirium. After the game, which was an anti-climatic 10-3 victory, the excitement was still palpable. Although the Yankees had failed to get the real Roger Clemens during the offseason, it appeared as if they had found the next best thing. Then reality set in. Over his next seven starts, which were interrupted by a stint in the minors, Irabu posted an ERA of 8.72. Soon thereafter, he was demoted to the bullpen and then left off the playoff roster. As quickly as he burst on the scene, Irabu’s star had been extinguished.

Over 50,000 fans packed the Stadium for Irabu's debut on July 10, 1997.

Well, that’s not really true. Following his dismal debut, it would have been easy for Irabu to crawl into a shell, but instead, the right hander rebounded with a strong season in 1998. What’s more, for a stretch during that historic season, Irabu was actually the best pitcher on the team.  In fact, in May, the same month in which David Wells threw a perfect game, Irabu was named the best pitcher in the American League. Although his second half was marred by poor performance, Irabu was still an important part of one of the best teams in baseball history.

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