Gary Garland / the japanese insider
Ichiro just wrapped up a stellar season by getting the MVP. And MLB and media beat writers need to realize there aren't any others like him back in Japan. But there are indeed other first rate players in the land of the rising sun.
NOTE TO MLB: THERE IS NO "NEXT ICHIRO"
by Gary Garland
With Ichiro being the primer for a Seattle Mariners offense that not only lead the American League in scoring but won 116 games during the past season, other big league clubs are now eyeballing more Japanese players in hope that they can ride a Suzuki of their own to the postseason. Unfortunately, that is going to be a futile excercise and it will be unfair to any other Japanese who does cross the Pacific Ocean to have that comparison pressed on them. Indeed, there was a headline in a wire service story today that referred to Kazuhisa Ishii, the Yakult Swallows lefty who was posted by his club, as "the new Ichiro," which is ludicrous considering that the Chiba Prefecture native isn't even a position player.
Anyway, during spring training critics were out in full force saying that the little speedster from a country where the brand of baseball is thought to be not much above AAA qualitatively would be too weak to compete on such a high level and that the longer MLB year would do him in during the stretch drive. Furthermore, when he was spraying cue shots all over Arizona during spring training, idiots like Oakland A's third baseman Eric Chavez snickered to sportswriters that "with that swing there is no way he will be able to turn on a major league fastball." And that esteemed baseball pundit, Rob Dibble, recently followed through on his promise to sort of "run naked through Times Square in the dead of winter if Ichiro wins the batting title."
But Ichiro hustled the critics. Like a pool shark who couldn't seem to sink a ball into any pocket on the table and then, when the big money comes out to play , can't miss, made fools of the baseball establishment by setting a rookie record for hits, becoming the first player since Jackie Robinson in 1949 to win both the batting and stolen base crowns in the same season, and capping it off by being named by those same ink stained wretches as the 2001 MVP.
Seeing Ichiro's success, the Yankees George Steinbrenner was reported in the Japanese sports press as ordering his scouts to go to Japan and find another Ichiro. Sorry, George, that item is a limited edition and the Mariners have it for the next two seasons (and how smart is Pat Gillick? Ichiro takes a $2 million pay CUT for 2002 from the better than $5 million base he pulled in for the current year, making Ichiro the biggest bargain since Ernie Broglio was cashed in for Lou Brock by St, Louis 40 years ago).
And Steinbrenner has a lot of company. Since Ichiro took off, the Mets, the Braves and the Dodgers have been all over Japan looking for talent. Dodgers V.P. Tommy Lasorda personally tried to sign the 18 year old high school phenom with a 98mph fastball, Hayato Terehara, laying on the blather very thick as only Lasorda can. Terahara ultimately decided to remain in Japan and was drafted by the Daiei Hawks after a lottery drawing between the Hawks and three other Japanese teams. And the M's, with Japanese speaking Pacific Rim scouting chief Ted Heid, will continue to be a presence there as well, especially since they are, for obvious reasons, Japan's most popular MLB outfit.
But because Ichiro is such an extraordinary talent, the one most likely to encourage Japanese players to jump is Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Shinjo was a .249 career hitter who had a career year in 2000 with the Hanshin Tigers and the power numbers he had (28 homers) were very deceptive at that since he hit most of them in two big spurts and then didn't do that much afterward. I have to say that I was personally skeptical, even after Shinjo hit better than .300 off of an MLB all star team that came to Japan that same season. Yet, he managed a decent campaign at the plate, a lot of it due to a newfound willingness to hit the ball to the opposite field, and had the most outfield assists by any Mets first year man since Rod Gaspar's 12 in 1969.
Many Japanese players have had major league ambitions, but didn't think enough of themselves to give up a lucrative gig at home to take a risk in a foreign country. Shigeo Nagashima, a five time MVP slugging third baseman with the Yomiuri Giants, was asked by Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers to make the jump in 1961. O'Malley also made a nice monetary offer to Yomiuri for Nagashima, but was ultimately rebuffed, with Nagshima issuing a statement through the Giants front office insisting that "for the continuing development of Japanese baseball" he was going to continue what became a Hall of Fame career in Japan. Nagashima is now Japan's Mr. Baseball, so popular that when he stepped down as manager of the Yomiuri nine fans actually wept. With Shinjo doing very credibly, however, now it seems that even second echelon Japanese players think they have a shot. This article will attempt to handicap those players.
This Year's Crop
A southpaw who was once clocked earlier in his career at 97mph but when healthy throws consistently in the 94-96 range with a killer slider, a big curve ball that he will change speeds on and a forkball that is mostly a "show me" offering, the Mariners, the Dodgers, the Mets, the Rangers and now the Indians are going to bid to see who gets his power arm in their rotation for 2002 and beyond. Contrary to a report in Baseball America that profiled the 28 year old as "eccentric" and "rotund," Ishii is always in great shape and is a straightforward guy who admits that he goes for strikeouts. In 2000, Ishii lead the Central League in whiffs (210 in 183 innings) and ERA (2.60) and then followed it up with a 2001 campaign where he posted a 12-6 record with a 3.39 ERA despite being hampered by knee, back and shoulder pain/ He then capped it off with a one hitter in eight innings in the first game of the Japan Series against a heavy hitting Kintetsu Buffaloes unit to help spur the Swallows to the title.
Whoever gets him will be delighted with what he brings to the table from both a personality and talent standpoint and he should be a regular 15 game winner. The only downside to Ishii is that he had shoulder surgery in 1997 and the discomfort he experienced in the same shoulder this past season makes it necessary that whoever wins his bidding rights MRI him from here to next week. At the end of the season, his velocity was down to the low 90's, but he is smart enough that he brought out his forkball and used it more to compensate for the diminished heat. The Mariners Heid was quoted by one of the Japanese sports dailies as asserting that Kazuhisa was in "the Mike Hampton class of lefthanders." Ishii can't hit like Mike, but he sure can give him a run for his money on the mound.
Taguchi, 32, is a free agent outfielder who played alongside Ichiro at Orix. He can really run and reportedly has a cannon, skills attested to by his Gold Gloves. Latest reports have him being courted by two MLB teams, one of them the Texas Rangers. Other than his defense, though, it's hard to fathom why. He has hit neither for average or power, coming into 2001 with a career Japanese batting average of .277 and his career high in dingers was 10 in 1997. And even with his speed, he has never stolen more than 14 in a season and had just 77 in nine seasons. This past year he hit .280 with eight homers and 42 RBIs and just six steals. He is a fifth outfielder at best.
A .248 lifetime hitter in 13 years with the Yokohama Bay Stars, Tanishige is more famous for having caught Kazuhiro Sasaki and being solid defensively than anything else. Had a career high in homers this past season with 20 and another personal best of 70 RBIs, but that was only his fourth time into double figures powerwise. He also had his best year behind the plate, throwing out a phenomenal 54.3% of runners trying to steal. Note, though, that his career mark is 39.3%. Has a strong arm, though and that garnered interest from the Yankees, Tigers and at least two other clubs. Tanishige had hoped to go to the M's, but GM Pat Gillick wasn't interested. Could be a decent backup for someone, but won't hit for much. The latest news indicates that Tanishige will sign a multi-year deal with the Chunichi Dragons.
Komiyama, 36, played for Bobby Valentine in 1995 while with the Chiba Lotte Marines, going 11-4 with a 2.60 ERA for the second place finishers and was recently signed by the Mets, who will most likely use him in long relief and as a spot starter. At a baseball clinic Valentine was giving in Japan, he raised the possibility of having Komiyama compete for the nubers four and five spots in the Mets rotation along with Bruce Chen and Glendon Rusch. "He's a lot farther along than either of them," Valentine revealed, "just a real professional pitcher." The crafty 6' 180 pound righthanded Komiyama, a former number one draft choice out of high school in 1990, went 12-9 with a 3.03 ERA for Yokohama in 2001 and he has proved to be very durable throughout the entirety of his career. He has a mid to high 80's fastball, a slow curve ball, a slider , a changeup and a forkball. His control is excellent, as it has to be since he isn't overpowering, walking 2.43 per nine while striking out 6.35 a game, better than a 2-1 ratio. His Japanese lifetime ERA is around 3.50, not bad for a guy who spent most of his days with a bad team in the offensively oriented Pacific League.
The 2002 Class
At the conclusion of the 2002 season you could see three big names going up for bid, including the first legitimate power hitter to perhaps take a big league shot.
Matsui , 26, is the Japanese Barry Larkin. He can absolutely fly, able to go 90 feet in 3.5 seconds and having stolen as many as 62 bases in a season, has some sock from both sides of the plate, a strong arm with a quick release and fine hands. For Seibu this year, Matsui made just nine errors and despite being hampered by hamstring pulls and an ankle problem, still batted .308 with 24 homers and 76 RBIs while swiping 26 bags. He has been undergoing weight training in the offseason to prepare himself for the long MLB schedule when he finally jumps. He is considered by major league scouts to be the best pure athlete in Japanese pro ball right now. He has said that he wants to play for Seattle and the M's have been scouting him, but so have the Mets, Yankees and Dodgers. Whoever gets him will be getting an all star caliber player. I project him as a consistent .280-.300 guy with 20 homers and 75 steals. The best base stealer to come into MLB since Vince Coleman.
Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui
During the 2000 Japan Series against the Daiei Hawks, Yomiuri Giants centerfielder Hideki Matsui, known by the nickname of "Godzilla" since high school, put on a power display not seen much anywhere, hitting four homers, all over 450 feet, to take the series MVP home in helping the Giants overcome a 2-0 deficit to win the championship. The ball absolutely explodes off of this guy's bat. Some MLB scouts are literally drooling over having the 6"1' 219 pound 27 year old in their batting order. Matsui also grabbed his first batting crown in 2001, when he hit .333 to go along with 36 homers and 104 RBIs. The Ishikawa Prefecture native is till growing as a hitter and he is a conscientious worker and a nice guy in the clubhouse.
Unfortunately, Matsui , who is Japan's most popular player following the exit of Ichiro, has glaring defensive weaknesses. He often takes awkward routes to the ball, has average speed at best and only an okay throwing arm. In fact, defensively I project him as Henry Rodriguez or Chili Davis, not very encouraging at all. Matsui does have two Gold Gloves, but that may have been due to his popularity rather than his actual value as a defender.
Matsui is somewhat controversial among Japanese baseball geeks because you have one camp that thinks he will come over and put up outstanding numbers and then there are those such as myself who are somewhat skeptical despite what I said earlier in this evaluation of him. I've seen him look really bad against MLB all star squads and I have my doubts as to his ability to make enough contact consistently to make a viable career here. It's not that his strikeouts are that much of a problem, since he only whiffed about 16% of the time in Japan in a pitchers league this season and 20.3% lifetime, but that he is a dead fastball hitter and gets fooled badly on offspeed stuff. If Matsui is smart, he will take the longterm deal that Yomiuri offered him (eight years for $50 million) and be Japan's king of baseball. While Kazuo Matsui will have to be posted to come to MLB, his non-related namesake will be a free agent.
Matsuzaka is a 21 year old righty with a 95mph fastball, a plus slider, decent curve ball and a forkball he doesn't use as much as he used to, but will bring it out when he has trouble with his other pitches. The ex-Yokohama High School product has lead the Pacific League in wins all three years he has been a pro and Yankees scout John Cox referred to him as "the best 20 year old prospect in the world."
The concern about Matsuzaka is how much he was used by Osamu Higashio, his now ex-manager with Seibu. Having him left in to deliver to the plate 140-150 times in a game was a common occurrence and Higashio was roundly chastized by the foreign pro yakyu fans for the high pitch counts. In fact, Matsuzaka, when he first began to bring up the subject of possibly defecting to MLB last year, remarked on how he would be held to lower pitch counts here. Toward the end of 2001, Matsuzaka's velocity, normally at 94-95, declined by a couple of miles per hour. One hopes that this isn't a harbinger of arm problems. In any event, good riddance to Higashio.
Randy Johnson visited Matsuzaka this winter to help him with his mechanics and approach toward hitters. Matsuzaka sometimes has his control totally abandon him, though, and he recognizes himself that he has to have better command to be competetive in the big leagues. But then again, Matsuzaka should benefit with a higher stateside strike zone and he has the stuff to pitch upstairs.
Whether Matsuzaka decides to actually request a posting after next season is hard to say. But the working with Johnson as well as other statements he has made leads me to believe that if if he has a dominant 2002 he is a goner. And you gotta feel sorry for the Lions. By losing both Matsuzaka and Matsui they will be bereft of the two biggest Pacific League fan favorites and that will hurt them not only on the field abilitywise, but at the box office.
Players Rumored as Coming But Will Not
Nakamura is the stocky third sacker of the Kintetsu Buffaloes who set career highs in homers (46) and RBIs (132) in 2001. Some offseason tutoring by ex-Lotte Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines) Triple Crown winner Hiromitsu Ochiai has helped raise both his power numbers and batting average. Nakamura was the object of some speculation by the New York Post, which said that Nakamura might end up in a Mets uni once he became a free agent after next season, but Nakamura has strenuously denied that and after earlier being quoted as mulling over maybe trying to catch on with Yomiuri, now insists that he wants to be a lifetime Buffalo. But then again, he felt insulted by Kintetsu's $4 million a year offer and has made some noises about going elsewhere, so stay tuned. He doesn't have major league ability in the field since he's not very mobile and it's questionable if he can hit major league pitching. If he changes his mind, though, his future is in the AL as a DH or as a first baseman in the NL.
I sure would like to know why the sweet swinging Matsunaka's name keeps coming up. That's not because he can't hit here, because the guy can hit anywhere. It's just that since he played in the Japanese industrial leagues before being drafted by the Daiei Hawks, where he has won an MVP as their first baseman, he isn't going to be available as a free agent for many years to come and I doubt that Daiei would post him. Moreover, he hasn't said anything to indicate an interest in playing in the major leagues. It is more likely that his compatriot on the Hawks infield, third baseman Hiroki Kokubo, a slugger who I project as a .260-.270 20-25 homers a year guy in MLB while being solid defensively, is a more likely candidate. Kokubo is a free agent after 2003, so we'll see what he does. Note, though, that Kokubo hasn't given iny signals about traversing the ocean either.