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.
.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).
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
.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
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.
12-10 4.50 ERA 160 IP
At His Best At His Worst
Oliver Perez Kaz Ishii
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.
And remember, BASEBALL TALK is on the air every Sunday at 12 Noon :
* 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.
While many fans who like to look to the future mark down June 6th every year to see where the next great players will go in the Baseball Amateur Draft, July 2nd has become just as important a date. This is the day when teams are allowed to sign international free-agents. Two of the most interesting free-agents on the list this season were 16-year old catchers, Jesus Montero and Francisco Pena.
Francisco Pena has garnered much of the attention because of his famous baseball father, former MLB catcher Tony Pena, but Jesus Montero could be the top prospect among all the international free-agents. This past weekend both New York teams paid hefty bonuses to ink the talented young backstops.
The Yankees struck first, signing Montero to a reported $2 million contract. After losing out on Montero, the Mets quickly followed the Yankees’ lead by coming to terms with Pena for a reported $750,000.
Montero is considered by many scouts to be the best hitting prospect to come out of Venezuela since Miguel Cabrera. The fact that Tony Pena is the first base coach for the New York Yankees seemed to have no bearing on which of the two catchers the Yankees were targeting. Montero was clearly the favorite of Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman. His signing replenishes a Yankee farm system that, since the trading of Dioner Navarro, was devoid of top-talent at the catching position. He will start his Bombers’ career next season playing Rookie Ball for the GCL Yankees.
Montero was also the first choice of the Mets, but Mets’ GM Omar Minaya was ready to pounce on Pena once Montero chose the Yankees. At 6′ 2", Francisco Pena, from the Dominican Republic, is bigger and has more potential pop in his bat than both his father and brother (Tony Pena Jr. the shortstop for the AAA Richmond Braves). Upon his signing, he immediately becomes the Mets’ top-catching prospect.
"The kid is a good defensive catcher, but it is his bat that will take him far in baseball. We could say that he is a combination of Tony Pena’s defense and Mike Piazza’s bat."
Leo Mercedes, Pena’s baseball mentor
"I feel embarrassed to talk about my own son, but I think Francisco has a natural talent for batting, and as a catcher I can say that right now he has a better arm than I had when I was 16."
Tony Pena , father and 5-time all-star catcher
The Mets have not announced where Pena will start his career, but the GCL Mets in Rookie Ball is a good bet.
Carl the Cabbie
As this first World Baseball Classic (WBC) comes to a close most of the Cuban players will soon
fade from the U.S. media’s eyes, but fans who watched this tournament
will not soon forget the heroic and passionate play of Eduardo Paret
(captain and SS), Joan Pedrosa (1B), Alexei Ramirez (OF), Ariel Pestano
(C), Michel Enriquez (3B), Yulieski Gourriel (2B), Yadel Marti (P),
Pedro Luis Lazo (P) and the rest of the Cuban National Team. From the get-go, Cuba has had all the odds against them, yet here they are on the cusp of being crowned the first champions of the WBC. Throughout their saga, Cuba has stood tall, but more importantly stood together. Like the Detroit Pistons bearing down on an opponent or the Brazillians dancing their way to a World Cup title, the Cubans have exemplified the concept of teamwork. In the midst of a chorus of controversy, with passion and confidence as their catalysts, this gigantic underdog has leapt to the head of the pack.
Let’s recap some of the Cuban team’s trials and tribulations—First the U.S. Government tries to prevent Cuba from even participating in the WBC under the guise of enforcing its never-ending trade embargo against the carribbean island. Then, Cuba (one of the poorest nations in the Classic) has to commit to being the only team that will donate all of its earnings to a charity (Katrina Hurricane
Victims). The team is finally granted a permit to play only a week before the tournament begins.
So, they come to San Juan having to face the toughest bracket in the tournament. Along the way they beat the best pitcher in the major leagues, Johan Santana, and his heavily favored Venezuelan club.
They also avenge their only two defeats- trouncings at the hands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Both rematch victories eliminate their more popular carribean counterparts. During almost every game, they endure antagonistic pro-U.S. crowds and the constant heckling of
negative propaganda. Yet, with an ‘us against the world’ type
commraderie they have only grown closer as they continually rise to the occasion.
Not only has Cuba overcome teams chock full of major leaguers, they have also overcome bad umpiring. They have survived at least six horrendous calls so far- the worst being a call on a play at second base against Puerto Rico (quarterfinals) where the umps decided to ignore the internationally accepted ‘neighborhood play’. That blown call cost them their manager, Higinio Velez and his translator- they won the game anyway. They won because of an attitude that never says ‘Quit!’. How about their young second baseman, Yulieski Gourriel’s dramatic ninth inning blast against Panama (in the opening game) or his perfect relay throw with a rain soaked ball that pegged Ivan Rodriquez at the plate to ice the victory against
Puerto Rico. Or Gourriel overcoming his error against the Dominican Republic (that put Dominican ahead) and tying the game up the very next inning with the hustling speed of a man who just won’t accept defeat. How about Yadel Marti and Pedro Luis Lazo pitching with the poise of heroes upon facing elimination- not once, but twice! They made three of the majors’ best sluggers- Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols look like the Dominicans’ 7,8 and 9 hitters. Marti hugging Lazo when he was being taken out of a scoreless semifinal game was one of the warmest moments of the Classic. Cuba has played the role of Davey to a tee. With only one Goliath remaining (Japan), Cuba is one step away from completing this truly cinderella story. And to think all of this almost didn’t happen because of a permit. Aren’t you glad they let the Cubans play?
*Neighborhood Play – A force play in which the runner is called out because the defensive player with the ball is close enough to or within the ‘neighborhood’ of the base. This unofficial rule is accepted by most umpires to prevent middle infielders from serious injuries caused by the oncoming baserunner.
The World Baseball Classic (WBC) lives today! Much credit should go to the diplomatic skills of Paul Archey- the Senior VP of Major League Baseball International (MLBI), Gene Orza- the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) Chief, and Antonio Munoz- Promoter of the San Juan portion of the WBC. A whole lotta pressure from the rest of the world didn’t hurt either. Early Friday, the U.S. government finally agreed to issue Cuba a permit to play ball.
The original effort to stop Cuba from playing in the WBC sprung from the Cuban-American community in Miami shortly after the Classic’s conception. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (U.S. Rep. to Florida) has been the leader in the fight to exclude Cuba. Over the last several months it has been his top priority. In the end though Balart could not change the will of the world. Upon hearing the news, Balart, a Cuban-American, called the decision "lamentable and unfortunate". He also said that the Cuban National Team should defect once they get to Puerto Rico. "I hope that the Cuban players will use this opportunity to escape totalitarianism and reach freedom in the U.S."
In early December, political pressure from the Miami-Cuban dissident community caused the U.S. Treasury Department’s, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to reject Cuba’s permit to play in the U.S. where much of the WBC is to be hosted. With Florida governor Jeb Bush as a direct ear to the President, Balart was able to raise a major ruckas that turned into an international war of words. In late December, Puerto Rico requested that San Juan be removed as a host site in protest of Cuba’s exclusion. Then Castro began baiting the U.S. government by questioning their machismo, saying that America was scared to play Cuba. Venezuela jumped aboard with harsh criticism of its own, and in early January the International Baseball Federation (IBF) refused to sanction the tournament if Cuba was excluded. Cuba turned up the heat another notch when they agreed to honor the laws of the U.S. embargo, imposed on them over 40 years ago, by donating any proceeds they earned from the Classic to the victims from Hurricane Katrina.
Throughout this whole conflict Major League Baseball (MLB) has had to walk a tight rope. Already suffering from the wrath of the U.S. Congress over their steroid policy, MLB’s new political pickle threatened to turn into an even bigger public relations nightmare. The Cuban permit flap brought MLB into the crossfire in the never-ending battle between Fidel Castro and the U.S. government. With the WBC a little over a month away and a displeasured chorus bellowing throughout the international media, MLB has had to work quickly. Shortly after the first permit was denied, Paul Archey and Gene Orza logically and quietly maneuvered behind the scenes with Antonio Munoz and other Latin-American businessmen and leaders on a final agreement with Cuba. MLB then submitted a new application to the OFAC in late December trying to allay the U.S. government’s concerns about Cuba spying and/or breaking the rules of the U.S embargo. Orza and Archey spent the next three weeks playing peacemakers as the political tension boiled. In a sign that an agreement was close, Archey and an MLBPA lawyer flew to Cuba this week to discuss logistics and clarify legal issues. The diplomacy paid off and helped avert what could have turned into a political disaster.
Though Cuba is in and the WBC will be a lot more competitive now, there
are repercussions—World trust in the U.S. continues to drop. This
week International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques
Rogge said any future U.S. bids to host the Olympics would have to
ensure that a situation like this would not occur again.
So, Cuba’s in, the world wins and baseball fans can look forward to what hopefully will be the best world baseball tournament ever. Now pitching for the Cuban National Team:
Read my previous articles on this subject
Pedro Luis Lazo
Good to their word, Major league Baseball (MLB) has reapplied for a permit with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The permit is necessary for Cuba to play in the World Baseball Classic (WBC)scheduled for this March. Baseball spokesman, Paul Courtney spoke on
Thursday and assured that the application would try to allay any
concerns the OFAC has about any monetary proceeds going from U.S. entities to Cuba.
Each team involved in the WBC is scheduled to receive 1 percent of the tournament’s proceeds with the winner receiving up to 5 percent. The conflict between MLB and
the U.S. government has developed because of strict embargos on Cuba
that do not allow for them to profit from any business venture
involving a U.S. entity.
The international community has not reacted well to the news of Cuba’s
possible exclusion from the WBC.
Puerto Rican baseball officials have threatened to have San Juan
removed as one of the host cities in protest of Cuba’s potential
non-participation. Israel Rolden, president of the Baseball Federation of Puerto Rico sent a letter on Wednesday to the International Baseball Federation (IBF)
stating that the island would decline to be a venue because of the U.S.
government’s decison. On Thursday, he reinforced Puerto Rico’s
intention when he said,
"What we are saying is that we should renounce our position as host if Cuba is not permitted to compete".
On another front, Hector Cardona, president of the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee
has been talking with other Latin American athletic officials trying to
enlist their support. The exclusion of Cuba would actually help Puerto
Rico competitively because Cuba is set to play in a first round bracket
that includes Panama, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. However, Puerto
Rico has a lot of pride in their baseball and only want play the best.
Puerto Rico and Cuba are separated by only 150 miles of water. Historically, Puerto Rico has always been a step-brother
to Cuba. During their long fights for independence- both were colonized
by Spain; both agreed to Charters of Autonomy with Spain in 1897; and
both were invaded by the United States during the Spanish-American War.
A weakened Spain ceded both to the U.S in 1898 (Treaty of Paris) ending
the War. Of course, Cuba eventually did gain it’s independence while
Puerto Rico became a U.S. Commonwealth as well as the launch site for
the U.S. military during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Adding to the building drama is a team of Cuban-born Americans that
Florida congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart is forming as an alternative to
the national team of Cuba. The group is not recognized by the IBF as an official federation. The team already includes former MLB
players, Rene Arocha, Osvaldo Fernandez, and Eddie Oropesa and plans on
trying to lure Jose Contreras, Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez as
well. Through their spokesmen the present group said,
"We would like to represent the team of free Cuba…our lineup is ready"
Baseball spokesman Paul Courtney said MLB is dealing only with groups recognized by the IBF.
"Although we have never competed for money,
in order to offer options the Cuban Baseball Federation would be
willing for the money associated with participation in the classic to
go to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans."
The OFAC has not said when they will come to a decision as they begin deliberating on the new permit application.
Click On Flags To See Them Wave!
Some obscure wing in the Treasury Department of the U.S. government known as the Office Of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has decided that Cuba cannot play in the World Baseball Classic(WBC) this coming March. The permit wagging OFAC has refused to issue permission under its strict rules regarding any commercial transactions with Fidel Castro and his communist regime in Cuba.
Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) Chief, Gene Orza, and Paul Archey, the senior vice-president of Major League Baseball International (MLBI) signaled that they were not giving up on Cuba’s participation when they issued a statement following the OFAC’s decision,
"We are very dissapointed with the government’s decision to deny the participation of a team from Cuba in the World Baseball Classic. We will continue to work within appropriate channels in an attempt to address the government’s concerns and will not announce a replacement unless and until that effort fails."
Cuba has been at the apex of international baseball for a long time. Since the International Baseball Federation’ s (IBF) first World Championship in 1938, Cuba has won 10 out of the total 36 World Championships (The U.S. with top college and minor league talent has won once). Even if Orza and Archey do convince the OFAC to grant permission for Cuba to participate in the WBC, they could face another obstacle- Now that they’ve been rejected by the U.S., it would not be out of character for Fidel’s famous pride to flare and for Cuba to refuse its invitation. If Cuba does eventually join the Classic, it will be a testament to the diplomacy skills of Gene Orza and Paul Archey.
Fidel drawing by John Overmyer
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.