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."

A's position outlook: Will three catchers make Opening Day roster?

A's position outlook: Will three catchers make Opening Day roster?

The A’s have options at the catcher position, and with those options come decisions to make.

Figure that manager Bob Melvin and the rest of Oakland’s front office will use the length of spring training to evaluate their catching corps, and the decisions that eventually come down will impact the rest of the roster.

Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley could form a natural left-right platoon, as they did to begin last season. But Phegley is coming off right knee surgery that ended his 2016 season in July and proved more problematic than anticipated as he recovered. His status can’t be adequately judged until camp begins and he’s behind the plate testing his mobility.

Adding intrigue to the catching puzzle was last season’s emergence of Bruce Maxwell, who hit .283 after making his major league debut in July and shows defensive upside.

Might the A’s keep three catchers to begin the season? Melvin acknowledged that possibility when asked about it during the winter meetings. Vogt has played first base and the outfield in the past, so he provides a little flexibility. But keeping him, Phegley and Maxwell would short the A’s roster elsewhere.

There are decisions to make, but a full Cactus League exhibition season should influence how things shake out at catcher.

STARRING CAST: Maxwell’s emergence, and the fact he hits left-handed, made the 32-year-old Vogt a potential trade piece this winter. But the veteran is still an Athletic and has been an All-Star in back-to-back seasons, though his 2016 stats didn’t jump off the page. He hit .251 with 14 home runs and 56 RBI, delivering a much better first half than second half offensively. But Vogt’s biggest value comes with his clubhouse leadership and ability to connect with his pitchers. He’s the unofficial team spokesman, always willing to stand in front of the cameras after a tough loss. His steadying presence is even more important on a team that annually undergoes such heavy roster turnover.

CAMP COMPETITION: Phegley, 28, missed time in May with a strained right knee, then underwent surgery in July to remove a cyst from the knee. That seemed a rather minor procedure, but Phegley was hospitalized in August after developing a case of synovitis, or inflammation in the knee joints. A’s general manager David Forst said recently that Phegley’s offseason rehab has gone well, but Phegley will remain a question mark until he shows he’s full strength throughout camp.

Maxwell, 26, hadn’t played above Double-A before last season. But he impressed at Triple-A Nashville both with his bat and overall defensive skills. After a slow start in the majors, Maxwell hit .367 over his final 20 games. He began showing flashes of the potential the A’s saw when they made him a second-round pick in 2012 out of tiny Birmingham Southern College.

“Bruce is a guy that maybe in the season you didn't expect to see (before) September, and he’s a guy that came in and made an impact defensively and offensively,” Melvin said during the winter meetings. “It's exciting to have a young catcher like that, especially that hits from the left side of the plate to give Stephen some days off. Stephen is a versatile guy where you can DH him some too, maybe even play him at first base on a day that Yonder (Alonso) gets a day off.”

Could the A’s simply go with Vogt and Maxwell at catcher, though both hit left-handed? Again, Phegley’s health could factor prominently.

PAY ATTENTION TO: A catcher the A’s drafted in the third round last summer, Sean Murphy. He’s a non-roster invitee to big league camp. Murphy, who attended Wright State, is said to be a gifted catcher defensively, with mlb.com’s Jim Callis saying last June that Murphy had the strongest arm of any catcher in the 2016 draft.

Royals ace Yordano Ventura dies in car crash at 25 years old

Royals ace Yordano Ventura dies in car crash at 25 years old

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, whose electric arm and confident demeanor helped lead his long-suffering team to the 2015 World Series title, died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic early Sunday. He was 25.

With the fitting nickname of "Ace," Ventura burst onto the baseball scene with a 100 mph fastball and an explosive attitude to match. He was a fierce competitor always willing to challenge hitters inside, then deal with the ramifications when they decided to charge the mound.

Not surprisingly, he quickly became a fan favorite as Kansas City embraced baseball once again.

"Our prayers right now are with Yordano's family as we mourn this young man's passing," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said in a statement. "He was so young and so talented, full of youthful exuberance and always brought a smile to everyone he interacted with. We will get through this as an organization, but right now is a time to mourn and celebrate the life of Yordano."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a highway leading to the town of Juan Adrian, about 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of Andy Marte and Yordano Ventura," players union executive Tony Clark said. "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Ventura is the second young pitching star to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was among three men killed in a boating accident in late September, when the 24-year-old pitcher's boat crashed into a jetty off Miami Beach in the early morning hours.

Ventura went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the long-downtrodden Royals reach the World Series for the first time since 1985. He proceeded to dominate San Francisco in both of his starts, though the Royals would ultimately lose in seven games.

In an eerie coincidence, Ventura paid tribute to his friend and countryman, Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, with a handwritten message on his cap during Game 6. Taveras also was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic, and his funeral occurred just hours before Ventura stepped on the mound.

The following year, now firmly entrenched in the rotation, Ventura helped lead Kansas City back to the World Series, pitching well in two starts against Toronto in the AL championship Series. The Royals went on to beat the New York Mets in five games to win their second championship.

Not surprisingly, the Royals moved quickly to sign their burgeoning young ace to a five-year contract through the 2019 season that included two more options that could have kept him in Kansas City.

He wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura represented a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when Ventura heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential in his rapid rise. He made his big league debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League — rare heights the organization had not experienced in decades.

Hosmer took to Twitter upon hearing the news of Ventura's death, saying: "I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say. I love you ACE."

Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."