Giants have a fighter in Tanaka

Giants have a fighter in Tanaka
February 14, 2013, 3:00 pm
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – This spring will be a special challenge for reporters covering the Giants. This is the time of year when we write features introducing new players to the fans. 

One problem: There’s only one new player who’s a lock to make the team. And you already know everything about Andres Torres, right down to the brand of designer jeans he wears while working out.

But there was one new player I was very interested to meet: Kensuke Tanaka, the 31-year-old second baseman who won five Gold Gloves during his 13 seasons playing for the Nippon Ham Fighers in Japan.

Tanaka had a guaranteed contract with Nippon but opted out because he wanted the experience of playing in the big leagues. He is in camp with the Giants on a minor league deal, with No.88 on his back and no guarantees whatsoever. He’ll compete with Wilson Valdez, Tony Abreu, Nick Noonan and Conor Gillaspie for what’s expected to be one of two backup infield spots. Joaquin Arias will claim the other.

I walked up to Tanaka and introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Andy.”

“Hi, I’m Ken.”

“Oh, I didn’t know … you speak English?”

“…….. No.”

Luckily, Giants bullpen catcher Taira Uematsu is fluent in Japanese and English, and was happy to interpret for a few minutes. I learned that Tanaka fell in love with the Giants in 2010, and actually attended Game 1 of the World Series as a fan.

“”Lincecum, Lee,” he said.

Tanaka always wanted to see a World Series in person, so he made the flight from Japan and was able to get tickets through his agent. He said he liked the Giants’ style and became even more enamored of the 2012 team because they found ways to score runs without hitting homers.

That’s Tanaka’s game. He’s a singles hitter with a .286 lifetime who likes to work walks. His stolen base totals have declined in recent years because he fractured his left foot in 2011 (an injury that happened when he slid into a base).

He had an even more significant injury last season, fracturing his left elbow and tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, when he collided with Seibu shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Yes, the same Nakajima who recently signed to be the A’s starting shortstop. (Nakajima had laid down a bunt and the two players collided while Tanaka was trying to cover first base.)

The Giants signed Tanaka after he attended an open tryout after Christmas in Scottsdale. They also had good reports from John Cox, their Pacific Rim scouting coordinator.

Bench coach Ron Wotus said he likes what he’s seen so far from Tanaka after hitting him a few ground balls. Tanaka is willing to try shortstop, but it looks like he’s pretty much limited to second base – which might make him less than ideal for a utility job. Still, he’ll be given every chance to show he can play other positions.

In the meantime, shortstop Brandon Crawford plans to look up how to say, “I got it!” in Japanese.

“It was pretty obvious right away that he doesn’t speak any English,” Crawford said. “I asked if he was done taking grounders, made a motion with my hands to say, ‘no more.’ And he made it back to me.”

I asked Tanaka if he would feel any pressure having to live up to the standard of Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the last Japanese position player to wear a Giants uniform. I’m pretty sure the jest wasn’t lost in translation – probably aided by the fact that Tanaka and Shinjo were teammates for a time with the Fighters.

“Shinjo … is very respectable,” he said.

Tanaka was well respected in Japan, too. So why give up a guaranteed deal there to wear No.88 here?

“I wanted to learn the culture of America, I wanted to play baseball here,” Tanaka said. “And I wanted a challenge.”

For a day, he made mine a little easier.