The Seven Samurai

The Astros signed Kaz Matsui, the best 2B on the market. The Halos shocked the monkey when they landed good guy Tori Hunter, the best CF on the market. The Tigers never even let Pudge Rodrigueztest the waters, taking the best catcher off the market. The Red Sox
gave the rest of the league about a week before re-signing Mike Lowell,
the best 3B on the market. Are you getting the drift? 2008 is shaping
into the weakest free agent market since the days when the likes of Steve Kemp and Ed Whitson ruled the roost.

It’s so bad this year that even the few good relievers out there
have almost completely disappeared. Heck, as a fan you know it’s bad
when you find yourself kicking the kitchen table because your team
missed out on signing a 38-year old middle reliever who has barely
pitched half a season over the last three years. That’s exactly what I
did when I heard the Tampa Rays gave Troy Percival a two year/$8 million deal.

Thankfully, for some teams they had the foresight to look to the Far
East to bail them out of this bear market. While this latest class of
Japanese ballplayers might not include a Daisuke Matsuzaka or Ichiro Suzuki,
they do offer their new clubs solid resumes at a decent value. As for
the teams that missed out on the Seven Samurai, it might be time to
start drooling over Carlos Silva and calculating how many Silva
dollars to throw his way. Here now is a look at the five Samurai that
will be joining the majors in 2008.



Scouting The Seven Samurai


OF
   Kosuke Fukudome (Cubs)
The 30-year old Fukudome is the top talent in this year’s Japanese free
agent class. While the Padres and White Sox were in on the bidding, the
Cubs, desperate for a lefthanded bat, won out. They will reportedly
give him $48-million over 4 years to be there new right fielder.

Many scouts project Fukudome to to put up similar production to Hideki Matsui, but with less power.  Over his nine year career for the Chunichi Dragons, Fukudome  had a .305 career average, a .397 OBP and a .543 SLG. In 2006 he was the Central League batting champ with a .351 average. While Fukudome averaged 21
home runs a season for Chunichi, Japanese hitters traditionally lose
power when they come to the majors because of the bigger stadiums.

As long as Fukudome can handle the NL left handers he will be the
Cubs’ starting right fielder and probably bat sixth in the lineup. If
he should struggle against southpaws, he’ll probably end up in a
platoon with right handed hitting Matt Murton.  There’s always the possibility that he could play some center field also if youngster Felix Pie is still not ready, though he’d be a below average man in the middle.

Fukudomeback3_1


Projection

.290 Avg.   18 HR    90 RBI

At His Best              At His Worst

JD Drew                    Luke Scott

SP   Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers)
The Dodgers have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to
scouting the Far East. When they signed Hideo Nomo to pitch for them in
1995, *Nomo became the first Japanese citizen to pitch in the major
leagues. Nomo and his tornado windup were an instant success. Since
then La La Palooza has been hit and miss in the forays into the
Japanese market. In 2002 they signed left handed pitcher Kaz Ishii. He
pitched three mediocre years for them before a brief stop at Shea on
his way back to Japan. In 2006 the Dodgers hit the jackpot again though
when they signed Japanese reliever Takashi Saito. Saito has turned out
to be one of the best closers in the NL over the past two seasons.

In 2008 they will be trying to hit the lottery again. The right handed
Kuroda has reportedly agreed to a contract that could be worth
$30-million upwards for 3 years. Kuroda passed on similar deals from
the Mariners and Diamondbacks for the right to pitch at pitcher
friendly Chavez Ravine.

The 32-year old Kuroda has a 103-89 record in 11 seasons for the
Hiroshima Carp of the Central League. Like Fukudome, his best season
was in 2006 when he went 13-6 with a 1.85 ERA in a 189.1 IP. Fukudome’s
career ERA is 3.69. While Kuroda is not an overpowering pitcher like
Dice-K, he possesses great control- 42 BB in 179.2 IP in 2007 and 21 BB
in 189.1 IP in 2006. He throws in the low-90’s and like most Japanese
starters has at least four pitches in his arsenal. Along with his
fastball, he relies on a forkball, a slider, and a screwball. Scouts
project him as a middle of the rotation guy who should net production
somewhere between a Brian Bannister and a Joe Blanton. The Dodgers plan
on slotting him in as their fourth or fifth starter (depending on the
health of Jason Schmidt).


Kuroda2

Projection

14 Wins  3.80 ERA  190 IP

At His Best                At His Worst

Joe Blanton               Jeff Suppan      

 



RP
    Masahide Kobayashi (Indians)– In this day and age of
specialization, the bullpen has become more important than ever before.
Almost every team seems to be on the look out for some relief pitching.
The Angels were the first to discover the boon that Japanese relievers
offered to MLB bullpens, when they signed Shigetoshi Hasegawa in 1997.
But, it wasn’t until the new millennium  that teams really started to
dabble in the Japanese bullpen market. While there were some misses,
the payoff from the hits was significant enough to continue the
investment.The Mariners struck gold with dominating closer Kazuhiro
Sasaki
in 2000. The Padres hit pay dirt with Akinori Otsuka in 2004.
When the Dodgers signed Takashi Saito in 2006, they got maybe the best
closer in the NL. And then last season when everyone was guffawing over
Dice-K and Kei Igawa, the Red Sox quietly brought in one of the best
left handed relievers in baseball when they signed Hideki Okajima.

This year the benefactors of the Japanese bullpen market could very
well be the Cleveland Indians. When the Tribe signed the right handed
33-year old closer of Bobby Valentine’s Chiba Lotte Marines to a very
reasonable 2-year/$6.25 million contract, it marked the first time the
Indians have signed a Japanese ballplayer. As one of only three
relievers to ever save at least 200 games (227) Kobayashi is one of the
best closers in the history of Japanese baseball. He is the only
Japanese pitcher to ever record seven straight seasons of at least 20
saves.

His arsenal is made up of three pitches. He throws two fastballs in
the low 90’s and likes to use his two-seamer to get right handers out.
But, his best pitch, his out pitch, is a hard slider that he can throw
for strikes with precision. In 2007 he had 27 saves and a 3.61 ERA,
though his lifetime ERA is much lower (2.79). The Indians will most
likely use him as a co-setup man with Rafael Betancourt. But, if Joe
Borowski
should struggle, don’t be surprised if Kobayashi turns out to
be the one putting the Ki-Bosh on lineups in the ninth inning.


Kobayashi_2_1

Projection

6 Wins  2.60 ERA  1.25 WHIP

At His Best                At His Worst

Scott Shields             Luis Vizcaino

RP    Yasuhiko Yabuta (Mariners)– If the Indians don’t turn out to
be the greatest benefactor of the 2008 Japanese market, then the Royals
might very well be. The right handed 34-year old Yabuta was Kobayashi’s
set-up man on Valentines’s Chiba Lotte club. The Royals gave him a
similar deal to Kobayashi. 2-years/$6 million. Some of you might
remember him for his great run in the 2006 World Baseball Classic
(WBC). In a tie game against the U.S. he struck out Alex Rodriguez to
end the seventh-inning. In the eighth he got Chipper Jones on a weak
grounder before  striking out Johnny Damon and Derek Lee. Royals’ new
manager Trey Hillman will certainly remember Yabuta as his Hokkaido
Nippon Ham Fighters regularly faced Chiba Lotte in the Japanese Pacific
league.

Yabuta was Bobby Valentine’s favorite setup man, and was named the
Pacific League’s best middle reliever after going 4-6 with 4 saves, a
2.73 ERA, and 1.18 WHIP in 62.2 IP. Since converting to the bullpen in
2004, he has a 2.80 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in 250.2 IP.

In the tradition of many Japanese pitchers, Yabuta has a very
deceptive delivery and throws a tank-load of pitches. He hits between
88-92 mph on the gun and also throws a change-up, a slider, and likes
to use a split-fingered fastball on left handed hitters. He will most
likely replace David Riske as the Royals main setup man.

Yasuhikoyabutajc240_4


Projection

5 Wins  2.75 ERA  1.20 WHIP

At His Best                At Worst

Chad Qualls              Matt Wise

RP    Kazuo Fukumori (Rangers)– At 31-years old, Fukumori is younger
than both Kobayashi and Yabuta, but he’s also the biggest question
mark. He has been the closer for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of
the Pacific League for the past three seasons. In 2005 when he saved 11
games with a 3.57 ERA, Fukumori’s skill level seemed to be ratcheting
upward. In 2006 he had his best season to date when he saved a career
high 21 games while posting a dominant 2.17 ERA. But, last year
Fukumori’s suspect control did him in and he ended with a 4.75 ERA and
only 17 saves before his season was curtailed by bone chips in his
elbow.   

If latest reports are true, then the Rangers aren’t gambling too
much on Fukumori, offering him a 2-year deal worth around $3 million.
Fukumori doesn’t throw especially hard (88-90 mph range), but does have
a funky delivery and a pretty good split-fingered fastball. He will
slot in somewhere at the back-end of the Rangers’ bullpen and possibly
become their sixth or seventh inning guy.

Fukumori_4


Projection

4 Wins  4.25 ERA  1.40 WHIP

At His Best                At His Worst

Jason Frasor             Jason Grilli

 


OF    Kazuhiro Wada (Free Agent)– The biggest problem for Wada in
his search for a MLB team is his age. Wada will be 36-years old next
summer and it’s highly doubtful anyone will sign him. But if they did,
they would get a .317 career hitter who in 2005 won the first Pacific
League batting title (.320) by a right handed hitter since 1993. Wada
was a member of the Japanese team in the 2006 WBC and is a former
teammate of Kaz Matsui. He has hit over 30 HR three times and hit .315
last season for the Seibu Lions. He would probably make a very good
fourth outfielder/pinch-hitter for a year or two.

Wada_1


Projection

.300 Avg.  5 HR   30 RBI

At His Best             At His Worst

So Taguchi              Jason Lane

RP    Kazuhisa Ishii (Free Agent)– Remember him Dodger fans. Ishii
pitched three season with LA before spending a year with the Mets on
his way back to Japan. Overall, he turned out to be a fairly effective
left handed starter albeit a wild one. In his four year MLB career he
was 39-34 with 4.44 ERA, a 1.53 WHIP and almost as many walks as
strikeouts.

Since 2006, Ishii has been pitching for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of
the Central League. He’s still Only 34-years old and coming off a 2007
campaign where he had his best BB/IP ratio ever (2.65 BB/9 IP). Okay,
so he’ll never be Greg Maddux, but with the dearth of good left handers
in the majors, somebody might just want to give Ishii another chance.



Ishii_2

Projection

12-10  4.50 ERA  160 IP

At His Best                At His Worst

Oliver Perez               Kaz Ishii         

If you
want to be a star during your water cooler conversations at the office, a good way to remember all these new Japanese names is to tune in to
the 11/25 installment of our radio show, BASEBALL TALK w/Carl the
Cabbie & Dugout Joe
.
Enjoy the rhythmic rendition of the special Japanese free agent song,
sung by none other than Carl the Cabbie. To listen click below and
then press play on the 11/25 show.

   

 

Carl the Cabbie’s Japanese Free Agent Song 

And remember, BASEBALL TALK is on the air every Sunday at 12 Noon :

Baseball Talk w/Carl The Cabbie & Dugout Joe


*
While Hideo Nomo was the first Japanese citizen to play in the major leagues (1995), pitcher Masanori Murakami

was the first Japanese born player to play in the major leagues.
Murakami, who shares the same birthday as Carl the Cabbie (May 6th)
pitched for the San Francisco Giants from 1964-65.

 

 


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