Ever since pitcher, Hideo Nomo signed with the Dodgers in 1995 there has been an influx of Japanese ballplayers into the Major Leagues. At first, they came in drips and drabs, almost all of them pitchers. Then, outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki hit the scene in 2001 and the perception of scouts changed. What other Japanese League position players were out there? All the big clubs increased their interest in the Japanese hitters’ market, looking for the next Suzuki. But, the pickings were slim, most of the hitters that tried their hand at the Majors were older, guys past their primes. The talented hitters that Major League teams were interested in were locked up in a very inflexible Japanese League market. It would take at least three or four years before they would become free agents. The plus sideabout the Japanese League’s system of locking up young players for so
long is that by the time the players hit the open market they are
seasoned veterans who are very strong in their fundamental skills. When
a good Japanese ballplayer does finally become a free agent, he is on
average about 29 years old.
Now that major league scouts are on the ball the
influx of impactful Japanese position players has quickened. St. Louis Cardinals’ fourth outfielder, So Taguchi came in 2002. The Yankees hit paydirt, signing outfielder, Hideki Matsui in 2003. The Mets missed the boat with shortstop, Kaz Matsui in 2004 and it looks like the Dodgers did too last year with third baseman, Norihiro Nakamura. But, the White Sox have to be very happy with the early returns on their 2005 import, second baseman, Tadahito Iguchi.
Well, the next hot position player from the Far East is about to hit the scene. His name is Kenji Johjima, but his teammates like to just call him Jo. He is considered the best catcher in Japan defensively as well as offensively. If he signs with a Major League club he would be the first Japanese catcher in the big leagues. For the past seven years he has been the starting catcher for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (formerly, the Dalei Hawks) and one of the most dangerous hitters in the Pacific League. He is 29 years old, righthanded, 6 feet tall, 198 pounds and was part of what the Japanese media coined the Fearsome Fukuoka Foursome along with former teammate, White Sox second baseman, Tadahito Iguchi. He was originally signed by and has been tutored and managed by Sadaharu Oh (the all-time home run hitter in baseball history). Last season Kenji hit .309 with 24 home runs and 57 runs batted in while playing 116 games. Over the past seven seasons, he has averaged 30 home runs, 100 runs batted in with a .299 batting average. Although he broke his shinbone late last season, Kenji is considered to be incredibly durable. He caught all 140 games for the Hawks in 2001 and was the first Japanese ballplayer since 1963 to play in every inning in 2003. He is a five-time Gold Glove winner and threw out 42% of the runners trying to steal against him in 2005 (38% for his career). He’s also well respected for calling games. Last year his pitching staff had the lowest Earned Run Average in the league. And though some Major League scouts worry that he could have problems communicating with the pitchers because of the language barrier, Hawks pitcher, Brandon Knight (former Yankee prospect) had no problem with Kenji calling games even though his English is limited. In fact, Kenji has worked with many non-Japanese pitchers during his career with the Hawks. The Hawks are still trying to re-sign him (they recently offered him over 10 million dollars a year) but the fact that he has hired Alan Nero, whose clients include So Taguchi and Randy Johnson, as his agent almost assures that Kenji will take a shot at becoming the first Japanese catcher to grace the Major Leagues. The Seattle Mariners seem to have the inside track at signing him because of their Japanese-headed ownership group and have reportedly already offered him a contract. But, the Mariners have top catching prospect, Jeff Clement (Matt Clement’s brother) in their farm system and would probably only offer Johjima a short-term contract. Omar Minaya and the Mets are supposed to meet with him next week and could offer him more years if they decide to pass on Benji Molina. The Padres and Dodgers are also in need of a starting catcher and have shown a keen interest in him.
My Cabbie radar says Johjima will sign with the Mariners,
but my Cabbie heart hopes it’s the Mets.
Carl the Cabbie
*Sadaharu Oh hit 868 home runs in
21 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants.