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.
Beckett In Beantown
The official salary dump in Miami has begun. Earlier today, the Red Sox acquired Marlins’ pitcher, Josh Beckett and third baseman, Mike Lowell. As far as getting the most they could get in return, the Marlins didn’t do too bad— Hanley Ramirez is the top shortstop prospect in all of baseball and should step in immediately as a starter on the left side of the Marlins’ infield. He is basically coming straight from Double-A, so it will probably be a couple of years before he is ready to make a real impact, but when he does expect Edgar Renteria-like production. Anibal Sanchez, was Ramirez’s teammate last year at Portland and was the Red Sox number two pitching prospect. He is a righthanded power-arm who will be given a shot at breaking into the Marlins’ starting rotation this spring. The third player the Marlins will reportedly receive is righthander, Jesus Delgado who pitched for Boston’s A-Ball team in Greenville last season. He projects as a middle reliever. His best pitch is a mid-90 mph sinking fastball. In addition, Florida saved themselves about $23 million if you consider that the Red Sox will pick up most of the $18 million left on Lowell’s contract and have to pay Beckett about another $5 million after arbitration. The Red Sox did pretty good for themselves also considering they are without an official general manager. Beckett will be a solid if not spectacular number two pitcher behind ace, Curt Schilling and they were able to hang onto their number one pitching prospect, lefthander Jon Lester. Lowell won his first Gold Glove last season and will hope to rebound from his worst offensive season. The trade officially ends any chance that Bill Mueller will return to the Bosox.
With shortstop Alex Gonzalez, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and pitchers A.J. Burnett and Todd Jones already gone via free agency, here is a list of other players the Marlins plan to purge themselves of this offseason:
Catcher– Paul Lo Duca
First Baseman– Carlos Delgado
Second Baseman– Luis Castillo
Centerfielder– Juan Pierre
Reliever– Guillermo Mota
I guess you can say the Marlins have given up on their chances of ever getting a new stadium.
Shiawase in Seattle
Kenji Johjima will be the Mariners’ starting catcher come springtime after the Mariners officially inked him to a three-year deal worth approximately $17 million. With top catching prospect Jeff Clement in their system the Mariners were reluctant to guarantee a third year, but in the end that’s exactly what they did. Kenji will be the first Japanese catcher in Major League history.
Johjima Flies Home
Scratch the Mets off of the list in the bidding for catcher, Kenji Johjima. Agent, Alan Nero canceled his meeting with Mets’ general manager, Omar Minaya. He and Kenji flew back to Japan and are supposed to decide by Tuesday whether to sign with the Seattle Mariners or re-sign with his Japanese club, the Fukuoka Soft-Bank Hawks. The Seattle Times reports that the Mariners have upped their offer to $6 million a year for two years guaranteed with a club option for a third year. The Hawks have offered him a one year deal for $10 million. Because the Hawks’ deal is just for one year, there is a strong possibility Johjima will return to Japan and try his hand at the Majors again next off-season.
Texas Seeking Hometown Ace
According to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, the Texas Rangers are discussing a deal with the salary slashing Florida Marlins that would net them homtown pitcher, Josh Beckett and third baseman, Mike Lowell for their starting third baseman, Hank Blalock and one of their top pitching prospects, 2003 first-round draft pick, lefty John Danks or 2004 first-round draft pick, righty Thomas Diamond. Both pitchers ended last season pitching for the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate, the Frisco RoughRiders. This rumor might have short legs unless the Marlins are willing to accept a lesser pitching prospect or assume a larger portion of Lowell’s hefty contract. Lowell is owed $18 million over the next two seasons.
Marlon In Washington
The Washington Nationals have signed Mets’ pinch-hitter extraordinaire, Marlon Anderson to a two year deal. With Jose Vidro’s health a major question mark, the Nationals are loading up on speedy, low-priced second basemen. Earlier in the off-season they signed road runners, Damian jackson (Padres) and Bernie Castro (Orioles). Whether general manager, Jim Bowden stays in Washington or not, he continues to find the cream of the Class C free agent crop. Watch out for Castro, he is one of the fastest guys in baseball.
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.