Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays finished the season with 91 wins and a Wild Card playoff spot. This is a testament to all the players who composed and all the staff who assembled that team. HOWEVER: There were still some noticeably unproductive elements of the club -- the catching position (outside of Kelly Shoppach's arm), the bullpen (outside of Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, and Brandon Gomes), and the shortstop position (no caveat).
The Rays have already acquired Jose Molina, an elite defender who will upgrade the Rays catching situation even if he tries to hit homers with a roll of paper towels instead of bat, and Josh Lueke, who may even blossom into a late-inning reliever in 2012, but the shortstop position remains un-addressed.
Now, mind you, Rays fans had already come to terms with the defensive gaffs of John Jaso at catcher and the ragtag bullpen, so when Andrew Friedman upgraded them in late November, a month he rarely makes transactions in to begin with, it was a genuine pleasant surprise.
So maybe Rays fans should anticipate Andrew Friedman will work some magic with the shortstop position. Maybe Sean Rodriguez won't need to play shortstop every day in 2012, but instead play to his strengths as a platooning second baseman?
On Thursday, free agency begins in the NPB -- Japan's foremast baseball league and one of the best pro baseball leagues outside of the US -- and among those available to MLB clubs is Hiroyuki Nakajima, a shortstop with impressive hitting numbers.
Nakajima has played for the Seibu Lions for nine years, and in 2010, NPB aficionado Patrick Newman described him as Japan's second best hitter. In the 2011 season, Nakajima mustered a strong .297/.354/.433 slash -- which actually represents his lowest OPS (.787) of the last five years:
His statistics are particularly noteworthy for two reasons: (1) he plays shortstop, and very few shortstops anywhere hit for that kind of power, and (2) he does this in a league where offense is hard to come by. The NPB is at times Deadball Era-esque, many seasons having only one or two players with 30 or more home runs.
The best power hitters in Japan typically lose a few homers per year when they come to America (see: Hideki Matsui, Kosuke Fukudome), but Nakajima's abilities extend beyond just power as he has shown well above average plate discipline through the course of his career -- a skill that should translate easily into the MLB and also help him fit easily with the Rays walk-friendly offense.
Nakajima turns 30 next July, but could be one of the franchise's best shortstops ever if the Rays choose and are able to acquire him. Tampa Bay is no stranger to the NPB posting system either, acquiring then-third baseman Akinori Iwamura in 2007. Iwamura eventually moved to second base and was instrumental in helping the Rays reach the 2008 World Series and proved to be a great bargain during his time with the Rays.
However, the market for Nakajima is largely unknown. He wanted to post (that is, come to America) last year, but his Japanese team denied the request. With Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins (who's likely to return to the Philadelphia Phillies) headlining an otherwise uninspiring free agent market for shortstops, it's possible Nakajima will have just enough suitors to make him too expensive for the Rays limited budget.
If not, then Rays fans could potentially have yet another exciting little surprise for the 2012 season.
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