Okajima arrives, faces stiff competition

Okajima arrives, faces stiff competition
February 12, 2013, 3:00 pm
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Hideki Okajima was 1-0 with a 4.32 ERA in seven games for the Red Sox in 2011. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Programming note: For all the latest from A’s spring training, tune in to Raising Arizona tonight at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area  

PHOENIX -- If Major League Baseball wants to sell itself as an international sport, it can put a spotlight on the Oakland Athletics as proof. In addition to the Australian, Mexican, Domincan, and Cuban players in their camp, they have added a second Japanese-born player in left-handed pitcher Hideki Okajima.

[NEWS: A's agree with Okajima]

He arrived in Phoenix today, suited up in green and gold and worked out with the team. Okajima signed a minor league contract and joins the team as a non-roster invite.

Okajima's last stint in the United States was with the Boston Red Sox in 2011. He was 1-0 with a 4.32 ERA in seven games. He was signed last season by the Yankees but later released and he returned to Japan.

"With what happened with the Yankees last year I was a little bit concerned," Okajima said through interpreter Mike Furutani. "The emotions have ranged from concerned to very happy that I am able to join the A's."

Wearing a jersey number just two years higher than his age, Okajima, 37, has spent parts of five season in MLB, and has been pitching professionally in Japan since 1995.

"The fact that he's had success at where he's been in the past few years is another good feeling for us, knowing that we have someone we can count on," pitching coach Curt Young said.

While he may be the second oldest player in A's camp next to 39-year-old Bartolo Colon, the A's are happy to potentially have his arm in the bullpen.

“Boy, you talk about our depth and this is just another guy," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "You look at his numbers last year in Japan and they were off the charts. I know he’s 37 years old, but it doesn’t appear that he has 37-year old body or pitching arm and we’re excited."

"I'm an old guy but I feel with enough preparation and training I'll be able to compete with the young guys," Okajima added.

The A's bullpen is stacked this season, but his Major League experience could put him in the running to win one of the final spots. He was 0-2 with nine saves in 2012 for the Soft Bank Hawks. He had a 0.94 ERA in 56 games and walked just six batters in 47 2/3 innings. He is 17-8 with a 3.11 ERA in his Major League career.

Aside from his experience on the mound, he may be very useful off the field as well in a mentor role for new shortstop Hiro Nakajima. While they have never been teammates before, the team believes Okajima could help Nakajima as he transitions to life in a different country and a different league.

“It seems to me like Nakajima doesn’t need any hand-holding as far as you know," Melvin said. "Personality wise, he’s very smart, he got here early, he’s trying to bridge the gap. But I think, having a fellow countryman here, who’s actually gone through all of it on the baseball field, that will be a nice resource for him."

Although typically a rare and valuable commodity, the A's now have several left-handed relievers vying for just a few jobs in the bullpen. Sean Doolittle, Travis Blackley, Jerry Blevins will likely all have jobs. That leaves Okajima, Jordan Norberto, and Pedro Figueroa hard pressed to claim a spot in the bullpen.

"To be able to add another guy to the list of several guys that we have, impact guys on the left side, that’s quite a luxury for us," Melvin said.

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