A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'

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A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'

OAKLAND -- In front of a room stuffed with media, he placed an A's cap on his head and buttoned up a home white jersey with his name and number (three) on the back. He claimed modestly that donning the Oakland Athletics jersey for the first time made him "speechless," but he was anything but that.

As Hiroyuki Nakajima took to the podium flanked by his new general manager and an interpreter, the freshly signed Japanese shortstop quickly won over the media and fan base by delivering an opening statement in English.

"Hi Oakland," he said. "My name is Hiroyuki Nakajima, but you can call me 'Hiro.' I am honored to be here today and thankful for everyone coming today."

You don't often hear an applause at a media conference, but this elicited such a reaction. It was a moment that he was extremely nervous for.

"I actually thought of this opening remark last night and during my sleep I was mumbling it over, and over again," Nakajima said through interpreter Hiroo Nishi. "Just outside that door over there I was just practicing over, and over."

"In my dreams I was practicing it," he added.

He certainly didn't look nervous. Soon thereafter Nakajima stunned those in attendance by saying through his interpreter that he signed with the A's because general manager Billy Beane was "extremely sexy and cool." At the end of the press conference he said -- again in English -- that he wants to learn the "Bernie dance."

Yeah…he'll fit in just fine with the A's loose clubhouse.

Nakajima passed the eye test, the medical tests, and immediately ingratiated himself with the fans and media. But can he play ball? In the end that will be the ultimate factor in deciding if this signing is a successful one.

The thirty-year-old veteran of the Japan Pacific League is an eight-time all-star and has won three Gold Gloves. He has a .302 career average in Japan. He is being counted on to fill the last remaining void on the roster of the defending American League West champions. He will feel the pressure to perform on the game's biggest stage -- Major League Baseball.

The A's feel confident he will be able to succeed in Oakland. They have been watching him closely for years. The A's front office says Nakajima is anything but a backup plan they merely turned to after Stephen Drew was signed by the Red Sox. In fact, assistant general manager David Forst said on 95.7 The Game that Nakajima was in an MRI tube getting his physical done when the news that Drew and Boston agreed on a contract leaked out.

Oakland was interested in retaining Drew's services, but all along they had been meeting with Nakajima's representatives. They spoke at the Winter Meetings and remained in touch.

"We were on him early," Beane said. "The more things we uncovered, the longer we got into the winter, the more we realized this is the guy."

The A's are familiar with making splashy international signings. There were a lot of questions surrounding Yoenis Cespedes when he signed with the A's last offseason, and the Cuban-born slugger now looks like a superstar in the making. It is hard to project or expect Nakajima, who hit .311 with 13 home runs, 74 RBI, 52 walks, and a .382 on-base percentage in 136 games last season in Japan, to be a dominating force like Cespedes. They just need him to play solid defense and provide adequate offensive production from the shortstop position.

The track record for Japanese infielders isn't exactly sterling. The guy Nakajima replaced on the Seibu Lions, Kaz Matsui, had huge numbers in Japan before underwhelming in seven seasons in America. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a batting champion and star in Japan, but flopped with the Twins and was released just two years into his three-year contract. Akinori Iwamura had a few good years with the Rays, but has struggled since. He last appeared in the Major Leagues in 2010 for the A's and hit .129 in 10 games.

Writing a person off because of the shortcomings of others in the past is the type of broad stroke the A's front office doesn't believe in.

"I think that's really individual," Beane said. "To generalize and make that statement is a bit unfair to the individual player."

The experiences Japanese players had in American baseball were also a factor that Nakajima looked into while making his decision to sign with the A's. He reached out to Ichiro Suzuki, and the aforementioned Matsui and Iwamura before making his final decision.

There is reason to believe Nakajima is different. He does have a taste of the big league spotlight, after all. He played in the 2009 World Baseball Classic for the Japanese national team. He also played for Japan in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has, however, elected to sit out the upcoming WBC games because he wants to do everything it takes to prepare for the upcoming season with his new teammates.

"I'm just very, very much excited to go to Oakland's camp as soon as possible," Nakajima said.

Nakajima has 141 stolen bases in 11 seasons. The most bags he has swiped in a single season is 25. Yet, he gave a nod to the A's past and present by mentioning that he can't wait to work with A's great Rickey Henderson, and learn from Coco Crisp during Spring Training.

Much like most of the A's fans have only seen Nakajima in action in Youtube videos, the Japanese shortstop has also admired the work of many of the current MLB infielders from afar. According to Nakajima, there is a highlight reel put together and broadcast in Japan every year containing the best plays from the Major Leagues. He feels a little pressure to perform like the current stars of the game but won't let it change the way he handles himself on the field.

"As much as I want to impersonate and copy those amazing plays, fundamentals are very important," Nakajima said. "I really want to stick to the basics."

Every second of available tape is being scrutinized by scouts, and analysts trying to determine whether or not this 5'11" and 198 pound ballplayer's skills can translate in the big leagues. There are different park factors, different pitchers, and even different baseballs in America. Nakajima doesn't seem concerned that his game will translate. The biggest difference he is worried about?

"The fact that there's not many bathtubs around in America," Nakajima said. "That's one of the possible challenges that I'll have to face."

He has the confidence, the tools, and a sense of humor to back it up. He also has one more thing working in his favor.

"We also think he is sexy and cool," Beane said. "That's what we are about here in Oakland, being sexy and cool."

With Yankees on the prowl, error costs Sonny Gray in loss to Blue Jays

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USATSI

With Yankees on the prowl, error costs Sonny Gray in loss to Blue Jays

BOX SCORE

Sonny Gray walked off the mound after a scoreless bottom of the sixth Tuesday in Toronto.

Was it the last inning he’ll pitch in green and gold?

That’s the dominant storyline around the A’s right now, especially in light of Tuesday afternoon’s revelation that the Yankees are making a run at acquiring both Gray and first baseman Yonder Alonso from Oakland in a package deal.

MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported multiple sources as saying the teams were “making progress” on a deal that would send both players to the Big Apple.

The A’s have been scouting the Yankees’ farm system recently, along with the systems of other contending teams who are considering Gray. The speculation surrounding Alonso, a free agent this winter, has been light in recent weeks except for the Yankees’ known interest. But after New York acquired corner infielder Todd Frazier from the White Sox last week, it seemed the Yankees’ need for Alonso might have lessened. Apparently, that’s not the case.

Gray struck out nine over six innings in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Blue Jays, which leaves the A’s 1-4 so far on this seven-game road trip. All four runs off him came in the second, when his own throwing error toward second base helped open the gates to the only rally Toronto needed. Ryan Goins had a two-out two-run double and Jose Bautista also doubled home a run in the inning, with all four runs off Gray unearned.

MLB.com also reported earlier Tuesday that the A’s had a particular interest in Yankees Single-A center fielder Estevan Florial, and that infielder/outfielder Jorge Mateo, ranked New York’s fourth-best prospect by Baseball America before the season, could also enter the equation. That same report mentioned that such elite Yankee prospects as shortstop Gleyber Torres, outfielder Clint Frazier and pitchers Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield would be all but untouchable. All are among New York’s top-10 prospects.

But for a deal that includes both Gray and Alonso, it stands to reason the A’s could ask for the inclusion of one or more of those four in a deal.

The Yankees aren’t the only team that has an enticing pool of prospects that could make for a match with Oakland. Houston, known to be going after a starter, has multiple outfielders who could be attractive to the A’s. The Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers are among other teams in search of pitching who could put together competitive offers.

Gray’s next scheduled start would come Sunday at home against the Minnesota Twins, one day before the non-waiver trade deadline.

Decision time for A's: Trade Sonny Gray now or later?

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AP

Decision time for A's: Trade Sonny Gray now or later?

As Sonny Gray prepares to take the mound against Toronto on Tuesday night, there’s not a hotter name in the rumor mill as the major leagues’ non-waiver trade deadline approaches Monday.

Yet there’s a contradiction attached to the A’s right-hander. He is simultaneously the likeliest Athletic to be traded, and the toughest to pry away simply because of what the team will demand in return.

The markets for first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jed Lowrie haven’t developed as expected, to the point that you wonder how much the A’s could even get in return for them right now.

That focuses the spotlight squarely on Gray, 27, who has posted a 1.62 ERA over his last five starts and comes with two more seasons of team control before he hits free agency. That’s why he’s been linked to no fewer than nine contending teams who are looking for starting pitching.

The A’s sit in a position of strength here. They don’t have to deal Gray right now, and indications from within the organization are that they don’t feel a pressing need to deal him before Monday if they don’t get swept off their feet by an offer. They can retain him, and he’ll still hold great value as an offseason trade chip with those two years of team control.

MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi reported Tuesday morning that the Yankees and Nationals — who have already struck a deal with Oakland to get relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson this month — are two teams in particular to watch in the hunt for Gray.

Morosi also reported that the A’s are targeting young outfielders as the anchor of any deal. That makes all the sense in the world given their organizational needs, particularly in center. It’s also in line with what I’ve heard that the A’s would prioritize getting position players in return since they worked so hard over the past couple of years to acquire and draft young starting pitching (though it stands to reason a deal for Gray would be a multi-player package that could also include pitching prospects as well).

Morosi specifically mentions Yankees Single-A center fielder Estevan Florial as a player the A’s like. He’s just 19 and at least a couple years away from the majors. But Billy Beane, the head of Oakland’s baseball operations, said after making the Doolittle/Madson trade that the emphasis moving forward would be on acquiring high-end talent, not necessarily prospects close to being major league-ready.

Other potential Gray suitors have elite outfield prospects in their system: The Astros boast Kyle Tucker, the Nats have Victor Robles and the Mariners have Kyle Lewis, though it’s doubtful whether Seattle has enough elsewhere in its farm system to assemble a package to land Gray.

Just a hunch, but keep an eye on the Dodgers as a team that could enter the Sonny Sweepstakes in light of Clayton Kershaw’s lower back injury. There’s strong ties between the Oakland and Los Angeles front offices, and the teams struck a deadline deal last summer that sent Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers. They have one of the majors’ top outfield prospects in Alex Verdugo, who’s currently at Triple-A.

Though much mystery remains, an eventual trade of Gray is inevitable. The A’s have a solid base of young pitching depth, both in the majors and coming up through the system. And Gray’s rebound from a poor 2016, combined with his favorable contract status, makes him too tantalizing a trade chip for the A’s not to make the move.

The key question is not “if” but “when.”