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July 3, 2007

Nippon Prospectus

Japan-US University Baseball Tournament Preview

by Mike Plugh

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The 36th Japan-US University Baseball Tournament is scheduled to kick off in Durham, North Carolina on July 4th. This event has seen some very talented players pass through over the years, and it promises to give American fans a look at some of the premier names in the Japanese university ranks.

With the current state of interest in Japanese baseball, I felt there was a good opportunity to introduce you to the players making the trip across the Pacific to participate this year. There are several notable names absent from the team, including Keio University slugger Sho Sato in the competition. He stands 6'3" and weighs in at 200 pounds, and would add some much-needed bulk to an otherwise smallish group of players.

The main attraction should be Waseda University freshman ace Yuki Saito, who is fresh off earning the MVP at the All-Japan University Championships. Waseda took the crown, and Saito is joined by several of his teammates in Durham in hopes of repeating their success on American soil. For a history of these matchups and some background you can head to the MLB-run USA Baseball website, where you can watch these games on-line via MLB.tv. Click here for the schedule of games.

The Pitchers

Yuki Saito (Waseda University, 5'10", 165)

The apotheosis of Japanese amateur sports, Saito is an idol of unmatched popularity, singularly responsible for the newly-televised Tokyo Big Six University games. The Koshien champion and All-Japan University Championship MVP has the whole package. Improving size helps his velocity, which is already in the low 90s, and he features a variety of pitches that seem unhittable for hitters in the college ranks. He is rumored to be interested in a direct jump to the major leagues upon graduation from Waseda. (You can follow this prospect's development more closely at Yuki Saito Watch.

Tomohisa Nemoto (Yokohama College of Commerce, 5'10", 170)

Nemoto is a nice left-handed pitcher who hides the ball very well. He impressed scouts this season by striking out 17 against Osaka University of Economics, and produced a 6-0 record with a 0.98 ERA in Kanagawa University League play. He isn't the best pitcher on this club, but he is a rising talent.

Shota Oba (Toyo University, 6'0", 175)

A right-hander with a decent frame, a low to mid-90's fastball, and a nice curve and forkball. The best pro comparison might be Kazumi Saito. Oba pitched for Japan's 2006 Intercontinental Cup team in relief and put up a 0.73 ERA over six games and 12.2 innings. He projects in the top part of the 2007 draft.

Mikinori Kato (Keio University, 5'10", 165)

A smallish lefty with a low 90's fastball and a few effective versions of the slider. His size limits any future MLB aspirations, but he should be penciled into some NPB club's rotation within a couple of years. He has a decent chance at being selected in the earlier part of this year's draft.

Shingo Tatsumi (Kinki University, 6'0", 145)

A rail-thin, lanky hurler who threw a no-hitter in April. Tatsumi's motion is a bit herky-jerky, but he is likely to be one of the top five picks of the 2008 draft. His fastball touches the low 90s, and he has good control of a 12-6 curveball that keeps hitters honest.

Ryo Sakakibara (Kansai International University, 5'9", 145)

Not an elite prospect for the pro ranks, but Sakakibara is one of the current crop of third-year students showing marked improvement. He doesn't throw very hard, topping out at around 87-88, but his offspeed pitches have been enough to keep hitters off balance; the slider is his favorite out pitch. His smallish frame won't allow him to develop much more power, so his draft status in 2008 is questionable. A possible reliever in the pro ranks.

Tomoyuki Kaita (Komazawa University, 5'10", 165)

Kaita is a soft-throwing left-handed starter, and better suited for the relief role that he figures to play for this team of All-Star players. His max velocity has been clocked at 81 or 82 mph, so a pro career would seem to be out of the question.

Shinya Muramatsu (Kokugakuin University, 6'2", 175)

Muramatsu is a freshman at Kokugakuin, but has everyone talking about his tremendous upside. As a high school pitcher, Muramatsu was clocked at about 90 mph on the radar gun, but touched 95 in front of scouts this year. With an excellent frame promising further development, he has an extremely high ceiling. He's definitely someone to watch going forward.

The Catchers

Takeshi Hosoyamada (Waseda University, 5'9", 168)

Hosoyamada just helped lead Waseda to the Tokyo Big Six championship, where he hit .424 with a home run in 11 games. He moved from the sixth spot in the Waseda order up to batting second this year. He's likely to be an elite prospect next year, but still needs to develop more power and consistency. His improvement every season projects him to be perhaps the top overall prospect in Japan in 2008. He'll get enough exposure by catching Yuki Saito to make sure of that. He idolizes Ivan Rodriguez, and could wind up in the majors in the future.

Shota Ohno (Toyo Univeristy, 5'10", 168)

Ohno is second only to Hosoyamada among university catchers, and is an accomplished defender. His bat is very good at the college level, but it remains to be seen if he will be a factor at the professional level as anything more than a very good backstop.

The Infielders

Tetsuya Kokubo, 2B (Aoyama Gakuin University, 5'8", 165)

Gifted with a PL Gakuen High School pedigree, Kokubo is a typical light-hitting middle infielder with very good speed. He's the best infield prospect in this year's draft, and a very good hitter for average.

Shiro Mori, 2B (Kinki University, 5'9", 165)

The best second baseman in the Kansai Big Six League played for the league champion Kinki University club. Mori also won the batting title, going 15 for 35 (.429) during the spring series. I've never seen him play, and I don't see him listed as a top draft prospect this year despite being in his final year of school.

Takashi Ogino, SS (Kansai Gakuin University, 5'8", 158)

Ogino is a very good hitter who generally hits the ball to the left side. He has little power, but tremendous speed. He will likely fit the slap-hitting, good glove, speedster role for a pro club in Japan, but his draft position will be fairly low, making him a longshot to have a very succesful pro career. He's a prime candidate for an NPB bench role or a career as a top "Ni-gun"--a Japanese Triple-A player.

Noriharu Yamazaki, 2B (Yokohama College of Commerce. 5'8", 154)

Yamazaki is a very slick glove man by all accounts. He is one of the top batters in the Kanagawa University Baseball League, but the level of competition is suspect when you consider that many fine players play at bigger name universities.

Hiroki Uemoto, 2B (Waseda University, 5'8", 150)

Uemoto really came into his own to start his third year at Waseda. After a very up and down first two years with the bat, the young sparkplug of the Waseda offense helped the club to a Tokyo Big Six title with a .362 average, and was on fire at the All-Japan Championship, where he was the top batter, going 7-12 with five walks. Based on his Waseda pedigree, a good year and a half might be enough to put him in the NPB draft. He has a lot of work to do to show he belongs there, but so far this season he's been great.

Hiroki Nakazawa, 3B (International Budo University, 6'0", 174)

Nakazawa was a Best Nine member of his Chiba University Baseball League as a sophomore, hitting .463. Scouts are high on Nakazawa, and he projects to be the first third baseman taken in the 2008 draft.

Ryoji Nakata, 1B (Asia University , 5'7", 258)

Oh, man, this is a big boy. Somebody's got to tell Nakata that Korean barbecue is not a food group. Despite his enormous girth, Nakata has been a very nice hitter in the middle of the Asia U. lineup. He has some pop in his bat, but will never in a million years become a decent pro unless he gets his weight under control. Also, it's tough to imagine that he will be able to play first base in the pros standing only 5'7", and perhaps predictably, he has questionable range around the bag. Still, he has a ton of power and has succeeded to this point.

Shouta Waizumi, SS (Hosei University, 5'10", 172)

A product of Yokohama High School, Waizumi is a fairly light-hitting middle infielder in his second year with Hosei. He hasn't showed anything more than a good glove at this point, but has good size at short and could develop a better plate presence.

The Outfielders

Sho Aranami, CF (Tokai University, 5'8", 160)

Aranami was so well thought of coming out of Yokohama High that he was awarded the role of starter at Tokai as a freshman. He proceeded to hit .457 that first year. His high batting averages are a product of his tremendous speed; Aranami is adept at bunting for hits, and he has 3.8 speed up the line. In his stance, he holds his hands high, up around his eyes, so he is unlikely to ever develop any real power. Aranami is a "B" prospect in terms of the pro potential, but his speed will get him a look.

Yukinaga Tanaka, LF (Waseda University, 5'10", 181)

Tanaka homered in his first two at-bats as a freshman at Waseda and produced a memorable run for a university already rich with history. Tanaka isn't considered an elite prospect, and his best hope for a professional career is to close out 2007 with a bang. The publicity surrounding Yuki Saito and the Japanese university champion Waseda club is sure to increase the value of several key regulars. Tanaka is the team captain and cleanup hitter and has some power in his bat; his stock is on the rise.

Takahiro Iwamoto, RF (Asia University, 6'0", 180)

Iwamoto is a high-profile hitter for powerhouse Asia University. A strong left-handed bat and a solid frame give him good pro potential, but his bat speed needs a lot of work. He'll be a power hitter wherever he lands next, but the average will only come if he improves his approach.

Keijiro Matsumoto, CF (Waseda University, 5'11", 172)

Matsumoto is another of the Waseda boys on this team. He is a high-average hitter with some speed, but very little power. He improved his size a bit this year as a junior, but needs to build on his skill set to be a factor at the next level.

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Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is also the author of Matsuzaka Watch. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

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