OpinionNovember 10, 2006

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Rising Sons-Part I
Japan League players poised to contribute during the 2007 MLB season

By Matthew Robertson

Konichiwa. In an off-season that could see a record number of high caliber Japanese imports joining the ranks of major league baseball, it seemed like a good time to devote some time and insight into these Rising Sons.

Mystery and intrigue seem to surround these Asian stars, particularly the pitchers, who possess such alleged abilities as the sundaboru, the shuto & the gyroball. Could these pitches revolutionize the game the same way Bruce Sutter’s split-finger fastball did? That might be a stretch, but you never know. Here are some noteworthy Japanese baseball players that have been posted or are free agents, available for the 2007 MLB season. Two later installments will cover players expected to arrive for the 2008 season and in later years.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, 6′0, 185lb,. 26 year-old right-handed ace, looks to be the white whale for many teams this off-season. Matsuzaka’s large arsenal includes a 2-seam and 4-seam fastball (90 – 96 mph), a splitter, change-up, forkball, slider and, possibly, the fabled gyroball. With his MVP performance in the WBC and his dominating 2006 season in Japan, Matsuzaka has already become a desired commodity in the U.S. His glove work is even top notch. The only question is which team will play Ahab. The role has been rumored to be given to one of only a handful of large market teams due to a projected record-breaking posting fee (rumored to be 18 – 40 million dollars). With the winning bid likely to be a king’s ransom, let’s hope the organization that catches him fairs better than the crew of the Pequod or Hideki Irabu.

Seibu Lions17-5186.313844342002.13

Predicted Availability: Posted Nov. 2, 2006

Akinori Iwamura, multifaceted, 5′9″, 175 lb., 27 year-old, looks to be a more powerful and better fielding Tadahito Iguchi. Iwamura is a known free-swinger but in the last 3 years the lefty has hit at least .300 with 30 homers, even hitting 44 dingers in 2004. It has been reported that Iwamura will shorten his swing; much like Hideki Matsui did, in an attempt to cut down on strikeouts. He performed very well in the WBC while hitting .389/.429/.500. Despite his measurements, Iwamura is built quite stoutly. His instincts and fielding are gold glove caliber and he is said to be very adept at playing 2B, SS, and CF, as well as his customary 3B. It is believed that Iwamura will cost a $5 million posting fee and fetch around $5 million dollars a year. The versatility of this guy is what makes him super-attractive to teams needing to add a piece to the puzzle.

Yakult Swallows.31232778.389.552

Predicted Availability: Posted Nov. 6, 2006

Kei Igawa, polished, 6′1″, 212 lb., 27 year-old lefty, looks to be slated in as a # 2/3 starter on most teams and will be a much cheaper consolation prize to the losers in the Matsuzaka sweepstakes. Unlike many Asian pitchers, Igawa has a consistent major league delivery, which should lessen any second-year regression, and he looks to be a 200 innings eater per year. The skilled Igawa has multiple pitches to compliment his ¾ arm angle. He punches his 2- and 4-seam fastballs in at around 88 – 94 mph, to go with a slider, curve, and knee-buckling change-up. He is smartly waiting until Matsuzaka leaves the market before officially being posted. Igawa figures to be posted at $5 – 10 million and could feasibly sign for $8 – 10 million per year.

Hanshin Tigers13-920017469461843.11

Predicted Availability: Posted 2006

Michihiro Ogasawara, consistent, 5′10″, 185 lb., 33 year-old corner infielder, recently (and surprisingly) declared his free agency. He has received very strong offers from many Japanese clubs, but insists he intends to test the free agent market. Whether that means he wishes to pursue a major league career has not been established. At age 33, this would likely be his last opportunity. In 2006, Ogasawara was his league’s home run and RBI leader while helping lead his club to their first Japan Series crown in 44 years. He is a composed player and a fine fielder at both 1B and 3B, which would attract any MLB team. As a free agent, Ogasawara does not require a posting fee and his annual salary on a major league team could be $5 – 7 million.

Nippon Fighters.313321004.397.573

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2006

Masumi Kuwata, veteran ,5′9″, 176 lb., 38 year-old right-hander, hopes to have a resurgent season as a major leaguer much like Dodger reliever Takashi Saito. Kuwata was once an elite starting pitcher, but injuries have made him strictly a reliever in the eyes of any U.S. suitors. He incorporates a quick high leg kick in his delivery of a split-finger fastball (his thunderball or sundaboru), low 90’s fastball, slider, and a change-up. Kuwata will probably sign a 1-year minor league contract. He might produce as a novelty at the major league level or never make it out of the minors. Any contending team in need of bullpen help will likely have interest. He’s currently a free agent, so no posting fee is necessary.

Yomiuri Giants1-111.61911156.94

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2006

The second installment will address Japan League players projected to first play in MLB during the 2008 season.

Matthew Robertson is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Matthew in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of Havok1517.
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