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Rob Smaal

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Leos' Nakajima hopes to ply his trade someday in da Bigs

by Rob Smaal (Apr 1, 2009)

Fans of Japanese baseball might not want to hear it, but yet another star of the local game has his sights set on North America.

"I'd really like to give Major League Baseball a shot," said Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. "I'd love to play for a team on the West Coast, like maybe the (Los Angeles) Angels or (San Francisco) Giants."

Nakajima has been on a very productive run lately after playing key roles in the Lions winning the 2008 Japan Series and Samurai Japan lifting the World Baseball Classic title for the second time just over a week ago. Also, while the Japan team flopped miserably at last summer's Beijing Olympics, don't blame Nakajima--he was one of the few bright spots, hitting a shade under .300 and driving in five runs in nine games.

Still just 26, the power-hitting middle infielder said it's all about testing himself against the best.

"I want to go because MLB gets the best players from all over the world," continued Nakajima, who also acknowledged that he'd be more than happy to suit up for teams like the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees. "Regardless of what country you're from, you can play in the major leagues--if you are good enough, that is."

Under current rules, players need seven years of NPB service to become free agents within Japan and nine years in order to move overseas. While Nakajima made his debut with the Lions in 2002, he only played 48 games with the club over his first two seasons, as All-Star Kaz Matsui was entrenched at shortstop in Saitama.

It appears that Nakajima would need at least three or four more seasons under his belt here to qualify for a free-agent move to North America, but, of course, there's always the possibility of his team trying to cash in by posting him prior to that, just like they did with ace pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Nakajima has put up some impressive numbers over the years. He has hit .300 or better over the past three seasons, including a .331, 81-RBI, 21-HR campaign in the Leos' 2008 championship season, a year that also saw him steal 25 bases. His .410 on-base percentage was tops in the Pacific League and his batting average was less than a percentage point behind that of league-leader Rick Short of the Rakuten Eagles.

He was also a force in the WBC, despite missing two games with the flu. In seven games in the tournament, Nakajima had eight hits--half of them doubles--and drove in six runs while drawing six free passes. He ended up with a .364 average and a .545 slugging percentage.

But does all this translate to success in the majors?

In Nakajima's favor he can hit for both average and power, he has decent speed on the basepaths and a major-league arm at short. He also has a very good attitude and is always keen to hang out with the foreign players on his club, trying to learn as much as he can about the North American game. In fact, he spent part of this past offseason traveling to South America on his own to visit a former teammate.

Some MLB scouts, however, are not so sure Nakajima would make a seamless transition to the bigs. Among the knocks on Nakajima are that he doesn't have great bat speed and his range on defense is limited.

Still, he's eager to step into the deep end and give it his best shot. Until then, he's content to try and put some more hardware in the Lions' trophy case.

"We (Seibu) have got a really good atmosphere on our club, just like last year," Nakajima said. "We'll certainly go out and do our best to defend the title, there's no doubt about that."


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