Oakland Athletics: What Happened to Hiroyuki Nakajima?

By Karl Buscheck
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, the Oakland Athletics took the seemingly excessive step of removing Hiroyuki Nakajima from the 40-man roster. That’s the same Nakajima who joked that he had signed with Oakland because GM Billy Beane was “extremely cool and sexy.” The Japanese league veteran and three-time Gold Glover was referencing the movie “Moneyball” in which Beane is portrayed by Brad Pitt.

The 30-year-old infielder was signed in the offseason to a two-year and $6 million deal. He has been outrighted to Triple-A Sacramento, the team’s top Minor League affiliate where he has spent the 2013 season. Through 76 games, Nakajima is hitting .287 for the Sacramento River Cats while seeing time at second base, third base and shortstop.

The move provides the Athletics with a bit of roster flexibility, particularly if the team decides to add an extra catcher for organizational depth. However, in order to remove Nakajima from the 40-man roster, the team needed to expose the eight-time Japanese league All-Star to waivers.

It’s possible that Oakland put him out there to see if there were any takers for what remains of his $6 million deal. Clearly, there were no takers, so the Athletics just stashed Nakajima in Sacramento, and got their open roster spot.

It’s worth noting that Nakajima got knocked off the roster while a guy like Andy Parrino kept his spot. Perhaps that’s because Parrino might actually figure into Oakland’s plans. Johnny Doskow, the broadcaster for the River Cats refers to Parrino as the “Magician” due to his impressive glove work.

When the parent club pulls up a extra infielder in September, it figures to be a defensive stalwart like Parrino, assuming Adam Rosales doesn’t make his way back to the team.

Even organizational black-sheep Jemile Weeks would seem to have a surer path to Oakland. The switch-hitter has seen time at second, short and even center field in 2013, and if the team wants to bring up a pinch runner, Weeks would be the obvious choice.

Perhaps that’s why the Athletics were less than concerned about losing Nakajima on waivers. Even on the Triple-A roster, he’s far from the top infield option. In fact, Daric Barton, who has been moonlighting as a third baseman, has probably got a better chance of earning a September recall at this point.

Nakajima’s lack of power has been noticeable in the hitter-friendly circuit that is the Pacific Coast League. In 11 professional seasons, before arriving in Northern California, Nakajima had never hit fewer than 11 home runs, and topped 20 on three occasions. So far for the River Cats, he’s swatted just four. Nakajima still has his powerful uppercut stroke, but he’s managed just 13 doubles and zero triples.

Nakajima, who is three of four on stolen base attempts in 2013, also used to run quite a bit more. His speed seemed to desert him his final season in Japan as he stole just seven bases, but the year before that he swiped 21 bags.

It’s still quite possible that even after axing him from the roster, the Athletics could repurchase Nakajima’s contract and bring him back from Minor League purgatory when the roster expands in a couple of weeks. Back on June 1, manager Bob Melvin told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that Nakajima was playing well and putting himself in position to get recalled when club needed an extra infielder.

The manager even praised Nakajima for his willingness to bounce around the infield. Since then, however, the club has brought up Grant Green, recalled Rosales at least twice, and even traded for Alberto Callaspo. It’s unclear what exactly Nakajima did wrong, but it’s most likely down to his glove. Reports suggest that his defense at short has been less than stellar, and not even as sharp as current shortstop Jed Lowrie, who is roundly criticized both for his lack of range and poor arm strength.

Nearly all the moves the club has made to this point, and in particular the seemingly harsh decision to outright him to the minors, suggest that Nakajima has no part to play in Oakland’s future either this year of next.

If that is the case, it seems that Nakajima — the supposed shortstop of the future — is far more likely to get shipped out in the off season or get straight up released, than to ever see the field at the O.co Coliseum in Oakland.

I wonder how “cool” Nakajima thinks Beane is now.

Karl Buscheck is and Oakland Athletics writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @KarlBuscheck and add him to your network on Google.

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