Last offseason, the A’s made a major splash in the international free agent market by signing then shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. He was supposed to come to Oakland and take over at shortstop or second base with Jed Lowrie taking over the other side. His glove was somewhat dismissed, but his offensive skill was praised. He could hit for average, something the A’s were desperately missing in seasons past. Fans finally got a look of the player their team had spent decent money on (2 years at $6.5 million with an option for a third year at $5.5 million). So what happened to Nakajima? No one saw him this year unless you made the trip to Raley Field in Sacramento to watch the River Cats play.
Spring training certainly did not go as planned for Nakajima where his praised hitting sputtered (he hit .167 in 42 at bats). Ultimately it was a combination of his defense, offense, and a left hamstring injury occurring in the final spring training series of the offseason against the San Francisco Giants. He was optioned down to Triple-A Sacramento after being eligible to return from the disabled list. This was supposed to give him time to figure out at the very least his hitting issues and eventually get called back up.
A month passed, then another month passed, a third month passed, and the offense never came. The A’s eventually outrighted Nakajima off their 40 man roster and let him have the rest of the season to figure out his swing struggles. It was then that something finally clicked. A story came out from various sources (including Susan Slusser of the SF Chronicle) describing a conversation between Nakajima and the manager of the River Cats. The manager asked Nakajima who the player on his batting gloves was (the player on the gloves was swinging a bat). Nakajima said it was he. Nakajima further explained he felt pressure to change his swing coming over to the U.S. because of all the information and scouting reports he received.
That conversation changed Nakajima’s season for the better. The manager told him to get back to swinging like the player on the gloves. That is what he did as he finished with a .286 AVG in Sacramento, nearly thirty points higher than the beginning of the season. That leaves the questions; did Nakajima find his swing and can he produce at the Major League level?
There’s no question Nakajima (who had to be resigned after being outrighted; his contract still applies) will have a legitimate shot to take over the right handed second base job this spring training (I recently wrote about a possible Mark Ellis return for the same position). Whether or not he can put the pieces together at the Major League level is the real question and February will determine if he can or if this contract was a bust for the A’s.