A's Nakajima Looking To Buck Trend





PHOENIX—The Athletics are not a team that shies away from gambles, and the big risk this year comes in the middle of the diamond.

Japanese middle infielders have not flourished in the U.S. The differences in play have so far seemed too much to overcome. But that has not thwarted the A's from bringing in Hiroyuki Nakajima to take over the shortstop job in Oakland. A three-time winner of the Japanese equivalent of the Gold Glove, he's now a rookie in U.S. baseball.

The big question will be how he adjusts to the differences in play. Japanese fields are almost exclusively artificial surfaces, and he will have to learn the techniques of playing on grass. During the early days of spring training, infield coach Mike Gallego saw that Nakajima has a tendency to wait back on balls, rather than charge as major league shortstops must. That will be the project for spring, to adjust to the different styles of play.

The 30-year-old Nakajima brings a big smile and a vibrant personality to the East Bay. He tells jokes, both through his translator and with his limited English, and he clearly enjoys the whole experience of stepping into the spotlight of playing a critical position on a potential contender. Manager Bob Melvin even identified him as a potential team leader, despite the language barrier.

"If he really did say that, I'm really excited, thrilled, about it," Nakajima said through translator Hiroo Nishi. "I'm going to do all that I can to be that type of leader."

The A's hedged their bet shortly before spring training, trading for veteran Jed Lowrie to back up at all infield positions. The Stanford alum is considered a solid shortstop but has a history of injuries that have limited his playing time. Melvin assured Nakajima that he is still the primary shortstop.

The righthanded hitter comes off a big year in Japan, where he hit .311 with 13 home runs, and he is clearly excited to play in the majors. He showed that when he appeared at the A's Fanfest in Oakland in late January.

"When I came on the stage, people were calling me 'Hiro,' and I appreciated that," he said with a big smile. From here on, the question will be what he can deliver on the field.

A's Acorns

• Righthander Michael Ynoa was set for his first big league spring training when he contracted a case of chicken pox that delayed his arrival from the Dominican Republic.

• The A's released infielder Nino Leyja, a 15th-round pick in 2008 from Texas. Leyja had shown promise before getting banged up by injuries.