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Hiroyuki Nakajima: Sign-and-Trade Possibilities

On Tuesday, we took a look at the New York Yankees surprise acquisition of SS Hiroyuki Nakajima via a $2.5M positing bid — the lowest bid for a position player since 2000. Now, it sounds increasingly likely that the Yankees will explore trades for the 29-year-old infielder.

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants are both interested in Nakajima, and — frankly — I am surprised there are not even more teams rather interested in one of Japan’s best hitting shortstops.

Rosenthal got some quotes from a rival scout that are somewhat illuminating on the defensive makeup of Nakajima:

“This kid wants to play baseball,” the scout said. “He’s not going to take Jeter’s place, but he’s capable of being an everyday shortstop in the big leagues.”

The scout projects Nakajima as a .270-.280 hitter who will drive in runs and use his instincts to steal bases, despite being a below-average runner. He lacks arm strength at short, but has great hands, very good range to his left and hangs in on the double play, the scout said.

So does Nakajima fit with the Cubs or Giants?

Cubs
Currently, the Cubs have one of the league’s best young shortstops in Starlin Castro. He has been a nightmare defensively, but at the stupid-young age of 22 (as of next March), there is still time for his glove to catch his bat. Clearly Nakajima does not fit at short unless the Cubs are willing to shift Castro to second, which I HIGHLY doubt they are.

Where the Cubs do have a space for improvement is at second base, however. Darwin Barney deserves credit for being one of the first good, homegrown defensive specialists in the Cubs system for a long time, but that does not make him a starting second baseman for a winning team. In all fairness, Barney may be around a 2.0 WAR true talent player — good enough to start on many teams in the league — but given their veritable logjam of big-contract outfielders, the Cubs may find themselves willing to shift Barney into a super-utility role (a role to which he could be well suited, given he learned second base in one winter after playing shortstop literally 95.5% of his minor league games).

Could Nakajima be a significant upgrade over Barney? It’s hard to say. The scouting report above mentions a weak arm, which usually sends shortstops to second eventually, but the rest of his fielding skills sound above average to excellent.

Could he be an above average second baseman? Probably. Could he be an exceptional second baseman who hits, fields, and runs well? There’s a chance.

Giants
Last year, the Giants employed a quartet of infielders at the shortstop position: Mike Fontenot, Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, and top prospect Brandon Crawford. More than likely, Crawford, the strong-fielding, not-hitting shortstop prospect, is penciled in as the 2012 starting shortstop for the Giants. The ceiling for Crawford, though, may be low enough to give him another year at Triple-A to see if he can improve with the bat, making Nakajima a possible fit there.

If not, the Giants also have Freddy Sanchez poised to play second after missing nearly 100 games in 2011 with a shoulder injury. San Francisco has Sanchez’s services for at least one more year, but if they are willing to pay their backup infielder $6M, it is not hard to envision Nakajima being an upgrade there — especially given Sanchez’s recent injury.

Clearly both the Giants and Cubs — at least those two teams; not to mention the Rays (who probably would not deal with the Yankees anyway) and Brewers — could find regular jobs for Nakajima. The question that remains, then, concerns cost.

The Yankees paid a crazy low price to negotiate with Nakajima (see below), and if they cannot get a contract in place (and the promise of a subsequent trade may pave the way for that), then the Yankees do not have to pay anything. So there’s little to lose for them. They can either they sign Nakajima and make him their backup, or the Yanks could just say the negotiations broke down. From what I’ve heard, the Yankees were thinking 2 years at $4M — a paltry sum for a guy with this much potential.

So, the leverage for a trade is all on the Yankees’ side — if Nakajima falls through, they can just grab Eric Chavez again. If the Yankees are not asking for too much, Nakajima could be a much better fit somewhere else.

NOTE: I have updated my chart and graph from the previous post to reflect the absence of Kei Igawa. From what I’m hearing, expect Yu Darvish to ruin the scaling of that final graph.