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Nakamura, Up and Down
2005-02-04 10:13
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

Adrian Beltre was a teenager when he made his debut with the Dodgers.

So was Norihiro Nakamura when he made his with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in Japan.

Though 31 years old, Nakamura is already a 13-season veteran of the Japanese major leagues. Signed this week to a minor-league contract, Nakamura won't replace Beltre in performance - he might not even make the Opening Day Dodger roster - but the few small parallels between him and Beltre are interesting.

Like Beltre, Nakamura had a promising season just after turning 20 before backsliding. He had an OPS of .827 in 1994, followed by .707 in 1995. In fact, Nakamura's OPS rose and fell in alternating years throughout almost the entire first decade of his career. Not until 2000-2001 did Nakamura have two consecutive years of improvement.

Like Beltre, Nakamura's age-25 season was the finest of his career to that point, with 32 home runs and an .856 OPS in 1998. He just missed matching that performance in '99, but then averaged more than 42 home runs over his next three seasons (2000-2002). Yes, even after your age-25 season shows dramatic improvement, you can get even better.

Of course, your second decade of professional baseball can also wear you down, no matter how young you are. Knee problems took hold of Nakamura around his 30th birthday, limiting his performance over the past two seasons (42 home runs total). What Dodger fans have to hope for is that better health will mitigate the downward pull that Major League Baseball will have on Nakamura's stats.

Just to compare, Hideki Matsui ended his Japanese career with eight consecutive seasons of .980-or-more OPS - a level Nakamura has only reached twice. As a 30-year-old with the Yankees last season, Matsui's OPS was .912. Knock 100-200 points off Nakamura's Japanese OPS, and you realize that basically, Nakamura might not be a much better hitter in the National League than Alex Cora was.

In any case, you can't help but be impressed by Nakamura's willingness to forgo millions of guaranteed dollars in Japan to take a chance on a contract that might land him in Las Vegas. And given that three years ago, the Mets offered Nakamura a two-year, $7-million contract, you can be excused for hoping that maybe the Dodgers just bought low on an underpriced stock. Just about anything they get from Nakamura will be, as one of my phys-ed teachers used to say, gravy on the cake.

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