Yankees, D’backs target Japanese ball players

But will they ride the bench or see the field?

By Nicholas Nehamas

Hiroyuki Nakajima of Japan slides into third base in a game against Korea. Nakajima, Japan’s top hitter this season, is being chased by a number of America teams. (Reuters)

Every year, American baseball teams try to poach Japan’s best players.

This season, scouts from the U.S. are heading to the small city of Tokorozawa where Hiroyuki Nakajima plays shortstop for the Seibu Lions. The Lions are in second place in their division, thanks in no small part to Nakajima’s league leading .331 batting average.

“His persona is really nice,” one Major League scout told Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times. “In a West Coast city, or an East Coast city where there’s a large concentration of Japanese-Americans, I think he would be very popular. Even if he goes (somewhere like) Chicago or Atlanta, I’m sure he would be very popular with the local fans because of his personality.”

Nakajima has also hit 13 home runs and driven in 69 runs this season. But will his hitting ability translate to the Major League level?

Some scouts told Coskrey that American teams are nervous about signing Japanese hitters after the “spectacular flame out” of Tsuyoshi Nishioka with the Minnesota Twins. An All Star two years ago in Japan, Nishioka hit .226 last season and made 14 errors in the field. He’s spent almost all of this season toiling in the minors.

Thirteen Japanese ball players are currently on major league rosters. Only three are hitters.

Different nations, different games

Part of the problem is cultural: the Japanese aren’t as selective as Americans about what kind of pitches they swing at.

“Japanese hitters are very contact-oriented,” explains Tony Barnette, an American who pitches for a Japanese team, “so putting the pressure on the defense to make the play tends to work in Japan but, in the States, those plays result in outs.”

Most of the scouts interviewed by the Japan Times suggested Nakajima will likely be used in a “utility” role, not as an everyday starter, if he signs with an American team. That means he’ll get playing time as a backup at second, third and shortstop.

Nakajima actually turned down a move to the New York Yankees last year because the team wanted him to serve as a backup for starting shortstop Derek Jeter. The Yankees also have aging Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki as a regular in the outfield.

But NBC reports that the Arizona Diamondbacks might be interested in giving the 30-year old a regular gig at short.

A fair deal

One advantage of signing Nakajima: he’s cheap. Because he’s a free agent, MLB teams won’t have to pay the traditional “posting” fee to his Japanese team in order to offer him a contract. Last year, the Yankees paid the Seibu Lions $2.5 million just to talk to Nakajima (the money was returned when he turned down their offer).

Posting fees can run much, much higher than that. In 2006, the Boston Red Sox gave $51.1 million to the Lions in order to open discussions with their star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Dice-K and his mysterious gyroball helped lead the Sox to a World Series title the next year, but he hurt his hip pitching for Japan at the World Baseball Classic in 2009. He hasn’t been the same since, winning just 17 games in his last four seasons after earning 15 wins in 2007 and 18 in 2008.

Now, the Texas Rangers are anxiously awaiting word from Yu Darvish, the hard-throwing Japanese pitcher for whom the Rangers posted $51.7 million in 2011, on whether he plans to participate in next year’s Classic.

Nakajima, if he signs with an American team, should announce his decision sometime in January.

The trend goes the other way too: there are currently more than thirty Americans playing baseball in Japan. And the MLB is trying to go global. This year, the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics opened their seasons with a game at the Tokyo Dome.

“”I know it’s tough on Seattle and Oakland,” MLB commissioner Bud Selig said, “but this is a very important part of growing the game. It’s about China and Japan and Korea and Central America and Europe . . . My dream, and it will probably not happen until after my commissionership, is to one day have regular season games in Europe.”