The Yankees’ winning bid for Japanese short stop Hiroyuki Nakajima came out of the blue last month, which led me to believe the team had identified international professionals as the next “market inefficiency”. As it turns out, the team wasn’t really interested in Nakajima, at least not enough to persuade the Seibu Lions’ star to accept a one-year deal.
The chances of the Yankees and Nakajima coming to an accord were pretty low from the outset. When the winning bid was announced, the Yankees expressed surprise that they had made the top offer, which implicitly indicated he wasn’t much of a priority. With an ensconced veteran at every infield position, Nakajima could be nothing more than a backup, so even if the Yankees did think more highly of him, they weren’t going to hand out a lucrative offer on top of the $2 million posting fee.
The posting process didn’t create a perfect match for Nakajima either. Aside from his stated desire to play on the West Coast, the NPL veteran couldn’t have been thrilled at the prospect of not only being a bench player in the major leagues, but taking a pay cut to do it. What’s more, because Nakajima already has nine seasons in Japan under his belt, he only needs to complete one more before becoming a free agent. It seems obvious that another successful season in the NPL would do more to boost his value in 2012 than sporadic play on the Yankees’ bench. Coming to the United States is a big transition for Japanese players, so Nakajima might as well wait another year and do it on his own terms.
The only real loser in the process was the Seibu Lions, which lost out on its only chance to earn a posting fee from Nakajima. However, Brian Cashman can’t simply shrug his shoulders. Had he accepted the Yankees’ offer, the 29-year old short stop would have represented a healthy able body capable of backing up for the aging veterans on the left side of the infield. Eduardo Nunez currently fills that role, but in his short time in the majors, he has shown very little ability to both hit and play consistent defense. That’s not exactly the kind of double threat a team should be looking for in a backup infielder.
Now that Nakajima is out of the picture, the Yankees may now reengage with Eric Chavez, who, when healthy, had some nice moments in pinstripes. However, the key words are “when healthy” and “moments”. In 2011, Chavez, who hasn’t been healthy in a full seasons since 2005, missed more time than Alex Rodriguez, so he is hardly the reliable caddy the Yankees need for their veteran superstar. What’s more, in his 175 plate appearances, Chavez hit an unimpressive .263/.320/.356. After years of debilitating injuries, Chavez’ power is all but gone, so the 34-year old third baseman now seems like nothing more than a defensive replacement.
During the off season, the Yankees’ focus has been on pitching, pitching, pitching, but to be honest, the teams greatest need might be a backup infielder. If Arod and Derek Jeter were a lock to play 150 games, that statement would be absurd, but the Yankees can not afford to make that assumption. Instead, Cashman has to prepare for the real possibility that his backup infielder will wind up in the starting lineup a lot more often than he would like, and right now, the Yankees do not have a player who can competently take on that added responsibility.
Quality backups are a rare find. Talented young players usually need time to adapt to limited roles, while established major league veterans tend to gravitate toward teams that can promise them more playing time. That’s why Nakajima seemed like the perfect fit: he was young veteran without the leverage to choose his own team. Unfortunately, Nakajima valued his ability more highly than the Yankees, so now Brian Cashman must find another player to fill the intended role, or cross his fingers with Eduardo Nunez (or the health of his veteran left side).