The St. Louis Cardinals are in a position to experiment in the middle infield, in the same way that someone whose car has caught fire is in a position to experiment with transportation. They don't have a lot of money, unless they bump the payroll, and they have a prospect at second base who's probably a year away, but in the meantime they have a fragile starting shortstop and a starting second baseman who isn't a starting second baseman.
Hiroyuki Nakajima is a shortstop who might be best-suited at second base; he's probably a league-average hitter, he'll be 30 in 2013, he's a free agent, and he's coming off a one year deal worth $3.6 million. Unfortunately the one year deal was with the Saitama Seibu Ham Lions (they're not actually Ham Lions), and he actually hit .311/.382/.451 last year, which was well above his particularly confusing league's averages. But he is a free agent, and a team in the Cardinals' present position—thumbs out on the interstate, Skip Schumaker emitting blue smoke behind them—should probably give him a look.
Hiroyuki Nakajima in Particular
is the longtime—like a lot of Japanese stars he reached the big leagues as a teenager—shortstop of the Saitama Seibu Lions, who play in a wonderful stadium that looks like a UFO on the outside and like a UFO landed on a minor league field from an 80s movie on the inside. (They play near girlfriendup's old host parents, and are thus our host-home-team.)
Last season he hit .311/.382/.451, with 13 homers and 29 doubles. Those look like well-rounded-line-drive-hitter numbers, but because the NPB switched to a baseball designed to make baseball games incredibly boring before the 2011 season, that left him sixth in the six-team Pacific League in home runs. He was also second in the league in average, third in on-base percentage, and seventh in slugging.
When things were less boring he had similar success, finishing as high as fifth in the league in OPS. Major league scouts have hedged on his defense, but his ability to adjust to the new baseball when almost nobody else did is impressive.
This seems like a fair characterization: Nakajima is a right-handed-hitting middle infielder with gap power who can fill in at short and start at second. He survived Japanese hitting numbers' sudden depressurization significantly better than Norichika Aoki, who finished his age-30 season with the Brewers hitting .288/.355/.433. Here's a video of a home run and a ridiculous bat-flip off the immortal Dennis Sarfate; below is a video of Nakajima highlights set to some exquisite J-Pop, which, you're welcome.
Japanese infielders in general
are terrifying. I get it. Nakajima won his starting job in Saitama only after Kaz Matsui, their other line-drive-hitting star shortstop, left for the New York Mets. When he left, Matsui was just about perfect—he slugged .617 in 2002, hitting 36 home runs and stealing 33 bases and played what was supposed to be excellent defense at short.
He's not the only weird one. Akinori Iwamura, who I remember as an undersized, line-drive-hitting third baseman in the states, hit 44 home runs and struck out 173 times one year for the Yakult Ham Swallows, who are actually exactly what they sound like. Tadahito Iguchi left Japan after seasons in which he'd hit .340 and .333 with 27 and 24 home runs. So Taguchi, god bless him, once hit 10 home runs in a season, but that was a long time ago and it took him every bit of 570 at-bats.
Something about Japanese baseball produces—or produced—these middle infielders who hit for shocking power out there and slapped singles under infielders' gloves over here. I have two unfounded rationalizations, which I'll deploy here for your use—
1. Few of them started out hitting for power. Matsui and Iwamura (and fellow slap-hitting import Kosuke Fukudome) all started off as the hitters we saw before turning, later and more abruptly than we might expect in the states, into sluggers. Matsui—in his age-20 season, admittedly—hit just one home run in 130 pretty successful games in his first full year; in full seasons he went from seven to nine to 15 to 23 to 24 and finally to 36. Iwamura broke out for 44 home runs at 25 after hitting no more than 23 in three full seasons before that.
I'm sure much of this is an artifact of players starting earlier and more raw than they do here; if you put J.J. Hardy in the major leagues at 20 you wouldn't have seen the 30-homer power for a while, either. But if there's something about this small-fast-middle-infielder pop that keeps badly in transition—something learned or developed for Japanese pitchers or Japanese parks, as though everyone is trying to be Craig Biggio at Minute Maid—Nakajima lacks the same spike.
In his first full season, at 21, he hit 27 home runs; that remains his career high, though he hit 20 in each of his last three seasons before the dead ball was inflicted in 2011.
2. The dead ball killed all of them, anyway. The four guys who hit 20 home runs in the Pacific League last year shake out as follows: Takeya Nakamura (27), Nakajima's teammate, nicknamed "Another Helping-kun" and listed at 5'9", 225 pounds; Lee Dae-Ho (24), former Korean home run king; Sho Nakata (24), a 23-year-old first baseman who hit .239; and Wily Mo Pena (21), as himself. The second-most home runs for a middle infielder in the Pacific League in 2012 were 37-year-old Tadahito Iguchi's 11.
In the Central League former Mariners tools goof Wladimir Balentien (31) and Yomiuri Giants captain Shinnosuke Abe (27) lapped the field with the only OPSes over .950, and also .870.
There are more coming—Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto hit 31 home runs as a 21-year-old in 2010, and managed to hit 16 and 14 in the first two dead-ball seasons—but right now Nakajima, whether he's for real or not, is what passes for a power-hitting infielder in Japan.
was incredibly terrible, but look at his numbers and you'll see that the Minnesota Twins somehow managed to sign the Japanese Freddy Sanchez.
am excited about literally every Japanese free agent. Granted. The swings are goofy, I enjoy the chants, and I love watching baseball on astroturf inside a UFO. I watched too much anime growing up (and last month) and my girlfriend spent the last three years working there. But this guy's better than Tsuyoshi Nishioka, at least.
are risking Daniel Descalso's playing time, and nothing else, with every move they make in the middle infield. League-wide interest in Hiroyuki Nakajima was low enough last year that the Yankees appeared to win the posting bid by mistake, with $2 million.
The 2012 offseason finds the Cardinals in a weird stasis—they're a very good team with an excellent farm system who nevertheless have places to improve, in the short term, and not a lot of money with which to do it. Whether it's Nakajima or Kelly Johnson or Chase Utley or Elvis Andrus, the middle infield is where they're going to get a return on whatever there is left to invest.