Facing long odds, Nakajima will nonetheless give A’s another try and be well paid for it

Hiroyuki Nakajima made his arrival with the A’s Tuesday in a far less “Hiro-ic” atmosphere than he did a year ago, when he was showered with attention from the U.S. media and hordes of reporters from his native country of Japan.

In fact, using the word Nakajima tossed out regarding general manager Billy Beane at his memorable first press conference, there was absolutely nothing “sexy” about it. After reporting in at the A’s minor league spring training camp Tuesday at Papago Park, Nakajima was probably fortunate to even be playing in a spring game his first day due to an injury to prospect Addison Russell. And there was nothing too dramatic about his interview sessions, either.

Nakajima, who signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract last year but wound up never playing a day in the major leagues, is not on the 40-man roster and his chances of getting back onto it at this point are probably slim. Face it, the A’s made a mistake in signing the Japanese infield star last year, but at least they didn’t compound it by forcing him into the lineup. They quickly covered their error by acquiring Jed Lowrie, who had a terrific year. As for the money lost, that’s back pocket pain for John Fisher and Lew Wolff, not A’s fans.

A year from now, it will be just another what-if story to tell, with Russell likely moving into the shortstop spot for the next several years and nobody giving Nakajima a second thought. Even if he does show well in Sacramento and winds up in the majors, it’ll be as a bit player trying to help, and he’ll likely be gone from the organization at season’s end.

Manager Bob Melvin was frank about the 31-year-old Nakajima’s chances of playing in the majors with Oakland this year.

“There would probably have to be some injuries to guys we have here,” Melvin said. “But who knows? Anything could happen in baseball, and I think he realizes that, and I think that’s why he’s here working as hard as he is and trying to get back to the big leagues.”

Nakajima played two innings at the end of the A’s 6-5 loss to San Diego. He didn’t get an at-bat but was involved in two defensive plays. He covered second base on a double play and got taken out fairly hard and unable to get off a good throw to first. He also had line drive to his left glance off his glove for a hit.

Afterward, he said he understood his situation coming into this season with the Athletics organization but hopes to make a more significant impact this season.

“I’m just going to play hard every day,” Nakajima said through an interpreter. “Physically, I feel very good. I just want to get better results in the minor leagues this year and be able to get called up to the big leagues.”

When Nakajima signed his contract in December of 2012, he was projected to be the A’s starting shortstop in 2013. But things changed quickly when Oakland acquired Lowrie from Houston, and Nakajima’s chances were further diminished when he suffered a hamstring injury in spring training.

There was some question whether Nakajima would even be back but he was apparently eager to give it another go with the A’s, despite long odds. Of course, he will be handsomely paid to try, which had to be a tremendous motivating factor in return to the U.S.

“For him to come back and just be a minor leaguer this year, it’s pretty impressive that he wants to do that,” Melvin said. “I’m sure he could have gone back to Japan and played, but he wants to prove himself here again, and it’s nice we’re going to be able to bring him over, and he will get into (spring) games.”

Nakajima spent the entire season at Triple-A Sacramento and hit .283 with four homers and 34 RBIs, playing in just 90 games. The A’s designated him for assignment and removed him from the 40-man on Aug. 17, but obviously due to the size of his contract, he was not claimed by another club, so he finished out the season in Sacto.

Nakajima did play both second and third base with the River Cats in addition to shortstop in the hopes that he could increase his chances of getting to the big leagues. While it didn’t happen, Melvin said the odds could be better this year if he hits closer to his .302 career average with the Seibu Lions during 10 full seasons. At Sacramento, he also didn’t show the power he displayed while hitting 162 career homers in Japan.

“I think the numbers are pretty indicative of what they said they were seeing,” Melvin said. “Maybe this year he’ll be a little more comfortable. One thing we heard about him in Japan is that he studied pitchers, knew the pitchers very well. I think for him, seeing different guys and not knowing how he was going to be pitched maybe affected him some.”

In the end, Melvin thinks Nakajima’s failure to make the adjustment to the U.S. majors last year was the latest test case of a larger trend.

“You look at the history of the Japanese players coming over here,” he said. “Some of the infielders, for whatever reason, have had some trouble.”

Other notables:

–Melvin said that Russell, who has been having a very impressive spring, will likely be shut down from baseball activity for a week so that his right hamstring, which tightened up on him breaking out of the box after hitting a double off the Dodgers’ Brian Wilson Monday, can heal. Russell said he felt much better Tuesday but both he and club want to make sure he is 100 percent before returning to the field.

“He was going to play a lot and he is,” Melvin said. “We’ve seen him enough to get a better understanding of what our development people see on a day-to-day basis during the season. We expected him to impress and he has impressed, so it’s too bad that had to happen. It set him back.”

–After experimenting with some things in his first two starts and paying the price with 12.00 ERA, Sonny Gray said he went back to regular-season attack mode in his third outing and the results showed – four shutout innings, one scratch single, no walks and two strikeouts.

“It was a completely different mindset, which is really big for me,” Gray said. “I just attacked it more like a real game and it went pretty well. I was thinking more `let’s get this guy out’ rather than working on stuff and feeling my way around the mound.”

“He’s a guy who grinds on everything and he was pretty serious today down in the bullpen,” said Melvin of Gray. “He had everything working today.”

Gray was the Game 1 starter in the playoffs last year. Will be the Opening Day starter in 2014? That’s the bet here. Gray said it would be “cool” but doesn’t have his heart said on it understanding that it’s such a talented, competitive staff.

–Lowrie hit his first spring home run and added a double while Coco Crisp had a pair of doubles and Josh Reddick an RBI single as the A’s jumped out to a 4-0 lead against San Diego starter Ian Kennedy.

–Derek Norris, who has missed nearly a week with back spasms, will likely return to action Wednesday. Outfielder Craig Gentry hit off a tee and appears to be on the mend from a troubled back, but he’s still likely a ways from playing in a game.

–The A’s had two promising bullpen sessions in the morning. Left-hander Kevin O’Flaherty, who is coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, threw 18 pitches full distance to the catcher for the first time. Ryan Cook, recovering from shoulder inflammation, threw very well and Melvin indicated he’ll have a revised plan for Cook going forward on Wednesday.

–Weird sight ’em of the day: Seth Smith coming to bat in the first inning … as a San Diego Padre. Smith went 1-for-3 but I’m sure he had some clever, expansive quotes afterward (inside joke among reporter types).

Carl Steward