OpinionFebruary 13, 2007


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Rising Sons II

By Matthew Robertson

Konichiwa. With Daisuke Matsuzaka entering spring training, it might be useful to look at some of his fellow countrymen that might soon join him in the majors. The 2006 off-season saw a few high profile Japanese players make the jump to Major League Baseball in America as well. This exodus is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of tapping major league-caliber talent in Japan. No matter the outcome of these signings, the Japanese hot stove of 2006 at the very least helped open the doors for future Japanese players making the MLB leap. The 2007 off-season has the potential to be the best year yet in elite Japanese talent having the ability to join major league teams. This list is not complete – more postings could still be announced toward the end of the 2007 season – and mainly features players rumored to be posted and useful players that will be free agents at the end of the 2007 season.

Kazumi Saitoh, elite, 6’ 3”, 200 lb., 29 years old, right-hander, has for the last few years been the best pitcher in Japan; yes, even better than Matsuzaka. Saitoh does not have quite the same velocity that Matsuzaka possesses, but he is larger and more durable than his contemporary despite a shoulder injury a few years ago. He has also outshined every pitcher in Japan to win the Sawamura Award (Japan’s Cy Young) three of the last four years. He uses a unique windup where he leans in, pauses, brings his hands over his head (similar to Hideo Nomo in that regard), and then briefly stops as he gathers his weight above his plant leg before delivering his pitch (something he and Matsuzaka have in common). When he is really dealing, his follow-through has drawn comparisons to the high leg kicks of Pedro Martinez and Justin Verlander. As his out pitch, Saitoh uses his devastating forkball, to compliment his fastball (93 mph), slow 12-to-6 curve, slider, and a shuto (reverse slider). The guy is in his prime and is easily the most polished pitcher in Japan. Saitoh has two more years on his contract and will likely be posted after the 2007 season to avoid free agency. Since he is two years older than Matsuzaka, his posting fee should not be quite as high. Expect him to be posted at $30 – 35 million and earn around $10 million annually.

2006 SeasonW-LIPHERBBKERA
Fukuoka Hawks18-520114738462051.75

Predicted Availability: Posting 2007

Kosuke Fukudome, 5-tool, 6’ 0”, 187 lb., right-handed hitting 30-year-old, has for years been considered the most complete and advanced offensive talent in Japanese baseball (think J.D. Drew potential). Fukudome has a fantastic glove and arm in right field, which he often showcases by effortlessly gunning down would-be scorers at home. Fukudome possesses intangibles to go along with his tangibles that would make him an impact player on any major league team. He is among the top in virtually every statistical category. This domination helped lead him to the 2006 league MVP. At this point, he has shown little interest in the majors because his Chunichi Dragons look to contend in 2007 but has stated that that will change when he earns his free agency after the 2007 season. He will look to make around $15-18 million annually.

2006 SeasonBAHRRBISBOPBSLG
Chunichi Dragons.3513210411.438.653

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2007

 
Koji Uehara, complete, 6’ 1”, 190 lb., 32-year-old right-hander, has for years interested many major league teams. The Yomiuri Giants have not recognized the posting system, despite Uehara’s wishes. He will be forced to wait until becoming a free agent after the 2007 season to fulfill his major league aspirations. Uehara is undefeated (12 – 0) in international competition, including a 2 – 0 record in the WBC where he lead the series with 16 strikeouts. He even struck out Barry Bonds during three straight at bats in 2002. Uehara features a split-finger, forkball, cut fastball, slider, and a late moving 2-seam fastball in the 88 – 92 mph range. Since asking to be posted two years ago, it has been rumored that Uehara has been unhappy with how he has been treated by the Giants’ management. This mistreatment might be why Uehara has regressed since his 2004 season. As a free agent with the high esteem he already has amongst major league teams, Uehara figures to earn $10 – 12 million dollars annually after 2007.

2006 SeasonW-LIPHERBBKERA
Yomiuri Giants8-9168.315760211513.21

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2007

 
Kenshin Kawakami, dependable, 5’ 10”, 200 lb., 32-year-old right-hander, is the small Dragons’ ace. He is a big game pitcher and always keeps his team in it. He has been dominating during international competition because of his smart and aggressive American-like pitching style. Despite his small frame, Kawakami seems to have a rubber arm which has allowed him to sometimes throw well over 200 pitches a game. He also regularly goes deep into games and often completes them. Kawakami has an 88 – 94 mph fastball, cutter (reportedly similar to Mariano Rivera’s), and a great curve. His cutter allows him to strikeout a large number of batters despite not having an overpowering fastball. Kawakami has a great glove and was the best fielding pitcher in Japan two years ago. Because of his stature, he would probably not be considered more than a good # 2 pitcher by MLB standards, but his big game ability would help many clubs. Despite being the highest paid starter in Japan, Kawakami is a free agent at season’s end and has indicated that he wishes to play in the majors. He would likely be signed for an $8 – 10 million yearly salary.

2006 SeasonW-LIPHERBBKERA
Chunichi Dragons17-721516660391942.51

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2007

 
Hiroki Kuroda, dynamic, 6’ 0”, 190 lb., right-handed, shuto-throwing 32-year-old, was in line to become a free agent but signed a 4-year deal with his parent club, the Hiroshima Carp. The deal includes a clause that allows him to pursue the major leagues after the 2007 season or later. Financially, it is a good move because Kuroda was looking to major league teams like the bronze medal behind Matsuzaka and Igawa. If he does opt for the major leagues in 2007, however, he will likely be in the same boat behind pitchers Saitoh, Uehara, and Kawakami. More importantly, the posting would give financial compensation to his beloved Carp. He exhibits a mid-90’s fastball, forkball, slider, and of course, his shuto. Kuroda is a control pitcher who does not strike out many hitters, but he keeps the ball in the park. He was slated to setup for Japan in the WBC, but pulled out after injuring his index finger. Kuroda has the potential to be a fine # 3 pitcher at the major league level. Even that projection would likely post for $12 – 15 million with a two or three-year salary of $6 – 8 million.

2006 SeasonW-LIPHERBBKERA
Hiroshima Carp13-6189.316939211441.85

Predicted Availability: Posting 2007

 
Hitoki Iwase, pioneer, 5’ 11”, 173 lb., 32-year-old southpaw is the highest paid pitcher in Japan, but is a free agent after the 2007 season. With Hirotoshi Ishii slated to sit out most of the 2007 season and rehab his surgically repaired shoulder, it appears Iwase projects as the best relief pitcher available. He has been the only NBP pitcher ever to post back-to-back 40 save seasons and has 114 career saves since becoming a closer in 2004. Iwase has a 92 mph fastball accompanied by a mid-eighties slider that baffles hitters (a similar arsenal as his Chunichi predecessor, Akinori Otsuka). Many view his delivery as labored and awkward but that has done nothing to affect his durability or effectiveness. He projects to be an elite setup man or a very good closer. Iwase and the Dragons lost in the 2006 Japan Series but will challenge again in 2007. There have already been rumors that Iwase would move to the big leagues at the close of the 2007 season. The Chunichi Dragons have three prime pending free agents (Fukudome, Iwase, & Kawakami) that might be major league bound at the close of the 2007 season. Despite being very expensive, the likelihood that all three make the leap appear slim if Chunichi does not win the Japan Series Championship. Iwase would look to make $6 – 7 million if signed.

2006 SeasonSVIPHERBBKERA
Chunichi Dragons4055.34088441.35

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2007

 
Masahide Kobayashi, record-setting, 6’ 0”, 172 lb., 33-year-old, righty closer will be a free agent after the 2007 season. After Iwase, and with Ishii on the mend, Kobayashi is likely the best readily available relief pitcher. A converted starter, Kobayashi was the first Japanese closer to achieve 20 saves in 6 consecutive seasons. He also had 33 consecutive saves in 2002, and has 200 career saves in seven years as the closer of the Chiba Lotte Marines. The fact that he will not need to be posted makes him even more attractive. Kobayashi has stated in the past that he does not really enjoy America but that could easily change with the right contract and team. He has good control and is armed with a prototypical closer arsenal containing a 95 mph fastball & slider. Kobayashi also has a split-finger fastball which he uses to keep left-handers off balance. If Kobayashi jumps to the states it would likely have to be to a city with a large Asian population such as New York, Seattle, or a southern California team. Something that might help him make the adjustment is that Lotte’s current manager is former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine. If signed as a free agent, Kobayashi could earn around $5 – 7 million dollars a year.

2006 SeasonSVIPHERBBKERA
Chiba Lotte Marines3453.64916482.68

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2007

 
Tomohiro Nioka, valuable, 5’ 11”, 178 lb., 31-year-old, smooth-fielding, righty, shortstop will be a free agent soon after the 2007 season. He is durable and able to play 3B, SS, 2B, and OF. This versatility would make an immediate impact on many MLB teams with his glove and clutch bat. Nioka has stated that he is definitely interested in playing in the majors at some point. His power numbers probably will not completely translate to the majors but 15-17 home runs annually is conceivable as a regular since he did hit 25 for the Yomiuri Giants in 2006 (29 HR in 2003). Nioka could bat second as a major leaguer but he would likely be penciled in towards the bottom of the lineup. At the very least, Nioka would be a great super-utility player for numerous teams. The Giants do not recognize the posting system and leaving as a free agent is Nioka’s only current opportunity at the majors. Something else that might influence Tomohiro to make the American leap is that he is very good friends with fellow Yomiuri teammate and free-agent-to-be, Koji Uehara. Uehara is a sure bet to jump to the majors and it would not be surprising to see Nioka follow suit. It would also not be surprising to see them both sigh with the same team.

2006 SeasonBAHRRBISBOPBSLG
Yomiuri Giants.28925790.472.329

Predicted Availability: Free Agent 2007

 
The first Rising Sons article profiled Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura, Kei Igawa, Michihiro Ogasawara, and Masumi Kuwata. Matsuzaka was posted and signed a record breaking contract with the Red Sox, Iwamura was posted and signed by the Devil Rays, Igawa posted and signed with the Yankees, Ogasawara stayed in Japan signing a free agent contract with the Yomiuri Giants, while Kuwata signed a minor league contract with the Pirates. Added to the list of Japanese imports is lefty specialist Hideki Okajima, who also signed with the Red Sox.

-The third installment of Rising Sons will appear at the towards the end of the 2007 season, and will have a more complete list of Japanese League players that are projected to 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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