By JORDAN IKEDA
In this first of a three part series, I’ll be taking a look at the various Japanese players suiting up for the MLB this season. Parts two and three will focus on Asian Americans and Chinese/Koreans.
Right Field for Chicago Cubs
Working with his third hitting coach in as many years, “the Fook,” as skipper Lou Pinella has taken to calling him, has tweaked his batting mechanics and is looking to hit .300 this season. He’s in the third year of his four-year $48 million contract, one he’s fallen far short of living up to. While normally I’d be skeptical about the prospect of a 33-year-old player improving drastically without “topical cream” or “flaxseed oil,” this is only Fukudome’s third year in the Majors. He brings to the table a patient approach and knack for drawing walks, both signs of a good hitter. Despite the fact that his batting average only went up from .257 to .259 last year, his OBP and slugging percentage both improved enough to raise his OPS from .731 his rookie season to .796 in 09. While still not worth $12 million a season, he’s shown marked improvement. I see no reason why he can’t reach his objective average and maintain the uptick in power he showed last season.
Relief Pitcher for New York Mets
Only a few weeks on American shores and Igarashi has already been tossed a change up. The Mets brass doesn’t like his curveball—think it’s too slow and will get lit up by MLB sluggers so they’ve asked him to speed it up a bit and throw it as a slider. Igarashi is game, no doubt wanting to impress upon his new team his willingness to do whatever it takes to be the set-up man. He’s been a quick study thus far as well, but adding a pitch to one’s repertoire usually takes a lot of time and practice. Iggy’s got less than a month. We’ll see how this plays out. It could have Dice-K-like ramifications if the slider gets hit hard or can’t find the strike zone. Remember, half of a pitcher’s game is confidence.
Second Base for Pittsburgh Pirates
He’s wearing a number other than #1 for the first time in his pro career. He’s on a new team, in a new town, with new teammates, and he’s coming off of his first major injury. He’s also the highest paid position player on a very young squad. There’s plenty of questions surrounding Pittsburgh’s new second baseman, but if anybody’s up to the task, Aki’s the guy. While he’s going to be a steadying force in the clubhouse, he’ll need to emulate the numbers he was putting up before he messed up his knee last season when he hit .310 with 13 doubles and 8 stolen bases in only 44 games—numbers that average out to around 45 doubles and 25 swipes over a full season. He’s only 31, so as long as the knee is healthy, he could certainly have a career year.
Starting Pitcher for Atlanta Braves
He’s entering into this season as the Braves fifth starter, but if Kawakami’s career in Japan is any indication, he could easily be a top-three rotation guy come midseason. After all, if you dump his first four April starts last year when he was still trying to acclimate himself to the newness of the American experience, the former Sawamura Award winner went 6-7 with a 3.42 ERA in his last 21 starts. Not only is he more familiar with American ball this go round, but he’s also got fellow countryman Takashi Saito in the bullpen. Saito represents both someone other than his translator to talk to, as well as a guy who can be counted on not to blow any leads. I like Kawakami’s makeup, and if the Braves offense can just score some runs (he was dead last in NL in run support last year) he could easily win 15 games. If he does that in the fifth spot, watch out! Bobby Cox could have his World Series sendoff afterall.
Starting Pitcher for Los Angeles Dodgers
In what he claims will probably be his last MLB season, Kuroda is looking to fully bounce back from an up-and-down 2009. He opened the season with a bang, but promptly found himself on the disabled list for the first two months with a strained oblique muscle. He came back in June and looked mediocre for 14 starts. In August, he was just finding his groove when he took that terrible comebacker off his noggin. Kuroda finished the regular season on a high note, going 3-2 with a 2.79 ERA, but then promptly got lit up in the NLCS giving up six runs in 1.1 innings. Despite all of that, he still managed to improve his overall numbers from his rookie campaign. It’s highly unlikely Kuroda will experience another accident-filled season, so look for him to continue to be steady and at times spectacular.
Second Base for Houston Astros
Not expecting big things out of Kazuo this year. Well, I never do any year, but this year, the final year of his contract, seems like the perfect time for the 34-year-old speedster to fade away into the sunset and return to Japan where his game is much more at home. Less wear and tear on an easily injured frame. Less focus on power. More focus on small ball and speed. Of course, being a contract year, he may have another 90 plus games of .800 OPS ball and gold-glove caliber defense in him. He could also suffer a two-week DL stint due to an abnormally large mosquito bite.
Designated Hitter for Los Angeles Angels
Matsui in red just looks plain weird. I’d gotten so used to him in pinstripes, that to see him in red just doesn’t jive with my eyeballs. While the color scheme may be less than flattering for the 36-year-old designated hitter and the Mike Scioscia press-and-run style of play not ideal for Godzilla’s 55-year-old knees, in terms of mentality and professional polish, Matsui as a Halo is nothing short of a heavenly marriage. The Angels needed a clutch bat and as Matsui proved in last year’s World Series where he posted a mind-boggling 2.027 OPS, he’s as clutch as they come. For reference, Matsui replaces Vladimir Guerrero’s .740 postseason OPS with a markedly better .933 OPS.
Starting Pitcher for Boston Red Sox
Matsuzaka has a lot of power this season, just not like you’d expect. If he returns to Dice-K ball and pitches like his grade-scale suggests he should pitch, then the BoSox, with Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester have the best starting rotation in all of baseball. If he sucks and pitches like the prima donna who Boston brass and nation grew quickly to despise (and, really, what underperforming sports star do Boston fans not quickly grow to despise?) then the Sox, whose offense is a shell of its former 2008 greatness, will have a tough time competing with the elite squads. So far, despite his injury, Matsuzaka has been doing and saying all the right things. Only time will tell.
Relief Pitcher for Boston Red Sox
If his career path is any indication, we can expect the soon-to-be 34-year-old lefty to pitch 60 innings, win 3-4 games, snag 23-25 holds, post an ERA of 3.65 and strikeout less batters while walking more. Pencil that in. Oki epitomizes the word consistency. It’s just too bad he’s also consistently been on the decline.
Relief Pitcher for Atlanta Braves
It’ll be an interesting year for my ex-favorite Dodger. He’ll get some save chances in Atlanta’s bullpen, but he’ll mainly be a setup man. As I recall, and by all means correct me if I’m wrong, Saito struggled a bit when he wasn’t saving games. Add to that the fact he just turned 40 years old and I’m not overly enthusiastic about how he’ll hold up this year.
Right Fielder for Seattle Mariners
#51 had his finest season as a Major Leaguer last year and that had as much to do with how he performed on the field as it does for what happened off it. This year, he’s come into spring training already embracing the attitude he ended last season with. “Before, in the past, I tried to have that feeling,” he told reporters, “whereas this year it’s more natural to be excited and looking forward to the season.” He’s bonding with his teammates and lowering the walls he’s had built around him his entire career. He did the same with the Japanese World Baseball Classic team exactly a year ago, and though his numbers weren’t all that great during the majority of the tourney, it was his leadership that pushed Japan to the finals where he came through in the clutch with his four-hit performance. While his batting average will likely go down from the .352 he posted last year, barring injury, his runs will go way up. Unlike the past couple of seasons, he’s actually got some hitters behind him and none more dangerous than Chone Figgins. Figgy is great at moving runners over as well as taking walks, both of which will help Ichiro cross home plate. I’m really looking forward to all of those double steals this duo will pull off. With a dynamic pitching duo in the mold of the 2001 WS Diamondbacks squad that featured Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling as well as perhaps the Majors best defense, it’s perfectly within the realm of possibility that Ichiro adds a World Series MVP to his trophy case and a shiny new ring on his finger as well.
Relief Pitcher for New York Mets
The veteran lefty is currently donning Tom Glavine’s old #47 jersey. Whoever’s in charge of doling out the jerseys is a wishful thinker. Ironically, if he makes the team, Takahashi wants to switch to his Japanese number 21. Speaking of wishful thinking, I know Takahashi wants to be a starter, but everything about him points to a reliever. His career high (as in the most of his career) innings pitched is 186.2. Not going to cut it, just ask Koji Uehara. Takahashi’s fastball tops out at 90 mph while his best pitch is a screwball. He’s left-handed. Sounds like an ideal reliever. Pretty sure the Mets are thinking the same thing.
Relief Pitcher for Baltimore Orioles
Moving to the bullpen might be just what the doctor ordered for Uehara both literally and figuratively. After dealing with a left hamstring injury and a partial tear in his right flexor tendon last season, and struggling to adjust to starting every fifth day, Uehara was shut down for good in mid-September. This year, out of the pen, Uehara will give the Os a late inning option as well as a guy who can fill a variety of roles. Uehara went 2-4 with a 4.05 ERA in 12 Major League starts last season, but held opponents to a .202 average in their first plate appearance. That average ballooned nearly 100 points the second time around. Moving to the pen worked wonders for Takashi Saito and Kaz Saskai, Uehara could be next in line.
A few other names most likely not to see Major League time this year, but to keep an eye on.
Junichi Tazawa of the Boston Red Sox. He played in the Bigs last year, but probably shouldn’t have. He’ll start in Double A or Triple A this season, but if he makes it back, that means either something went horribly wrong—like Ethan Hawke in “Alive” wrong—or Tazawa pitches like the second coming of Sandy Koufax who pretty much skipped minor league ball. I guarantee you that second thing won’t happen, while I hold out hope that the first does…
Mr. Major League disappointment, Kei Igawa, is switching to a bullpen, lefty-specialist role, hoping this change will earn him a spot on the Major League Yankees roster. He pitched to a .200 batting average against left-handed hitters last season at Triple-A Scranton, inducing groundballs at a rate of 40.6 percent, so, who knows? Maybe the pen is just the place for a guy making $4 million a year.
My boy, Tomo Ohka, despite an awful 2009, is hanging onto his MLB dreams as word is that he just signed with the Quintana Roo Tigers, a minor league affiliate in the Mexican League. He’s only 34, so it’s not like he’s washed up, but that 5.79 ERA and 1.9 homeruns per nine innings given up last season sure do indicate that he’s close.
The Cleveland Indians signed 21-year-old pitcher Takafumi Nakamura in the offseason. Nakamura didn’t play pro ball in Japan, but his heater touches 90-92. Another young pitcher is 17-year-old pitching prospect Taiki Kawasaki, inked by the Mets to a minor league deal in September. The 6-1 Kawasaki has a fastball in the upper 80s, with a slider and curve. The Atlanta Braves have three players floating around in their system— Okinawan Ryohei Shimabukuro, who was brought in to catch, but looks to be more of a first base prospect who is big (6-1) and has some pop; Yoshinori Yamarin, signed two seasons ago. He’s 6-1 as well and throws around 92 mph; and Shohei Sekiguchi, who is a 6-6 pitching prospect. Man, a 6-6 Japanese dude. They don’t make em like they used to huh?
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Check back here for the Asian American players as well as the Chinese/Korean players in the next few days. Jordan Ikeda is the sports editor for the Rafu Shimpo. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo