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November 21, 2008

Nippon Prospectus

Back in Action

by Mike Plugh

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Though a swift stream is
Divided by a boulder
In its headlong flow,

Though divided, on it rushes,
And at last unites again.

-Emperor Sutoku (from Ogura Hyakunin Isshu)

The Japanese poetic tradition relies heavily on images of nature, images that speak to our sense of longing or loneliness in this impermanent world of fleeting beauty. I chose the above poem from the treasured collection of late-Heian Period "waka" poetry, in order to send all of you a little message. In this poem, the swift stream is for me the march of baseball's season, and our collective journey along its current, from spring training all the way to the final pitch of the World Series, and on through winter's Hot Stove League as well. The boulder represents the obstacles that prevented my own journey from coinciding with yours during 2008, forcing Nippon Prospectus into a temporary hibernation. Between earning my Master of Arts during the season, and also celebrating the birth of my second child (a daughter), I found myself on the sidelines of baseball journalism for lack of both time and energy. I only had the opportunity to cast an occasional eye on Major League Baseball, and barely time for a glance at Japanese "pro yakyu." Sure, I knew the ins and outs and the important trends on a week-to-week basis, but anyone who knows this business knows how quickly it moves, and how much focused energy one must invest to keep up with the entire landscape.

Well, at long last the stream once divided has united again, and I'm prepared to offer you some observations on the important developments in Japanese baseball from the past year, with an eye towards some things to watch for in the coming offseason.

Yu Darvish: The young ace of the Nippon Ham Fighters entered the 2008 season with a Sawamura Award already under his belt and consecutive appearances in the NPB Championship Series. All of Japan was watching to see if the right-hander would improve on his 2007 season, and I dared speculate that he could post a sub-1.00 ERA for the year.

Darvish was the figure of Japan's attention for another reason, however. The country is very serious about its standing in the Olympic Games, and regularly sends top professionals to defend the nation's honor on the diamond. Darvish was the headliner of a group expected to challenge Cuba for the gold. While the ace managed a 16-4 record and a 1.88 ERA in his 200 NPB innings, his performance in Beijing was nothing short of hideous. My lasting memory from that competition is Darvish's working his way down from the role of staff ace to bullpen mop-up man, and his implosion in the loss to the United States in the Bronze Medal Game. The model of confidence (and perhaps arrogance) against Japanese hitters, Darvish looked spooked on the international stage, even though it was not his first such experience. In that last matchup, he threw the ball to the backstop and behind several American hitters during his short stint in that humiliating loss. He looked very, very small.

What does this mean for Darvish in the future? Coming from someone who thinks the world of Darvish as a talent, and who expects him to go on to even better things than Daisuke Matsuzaka, I nevertheless see a long road ahead before we see him pitching stateside. Anyone who thinks the Fighters are going to post him in the near future probably should think again, but more importantly, they should be wary of what they are asking for. Darvish is completely unready for the major leagues, so much so that I think he needs to rethink his entire approach to pitching. The stuff is there, but his fastball is famously straight, and the breaking stuff won't be enough to get anyone out in the US if he has nothing working beyond the heat.

The Curious Case of Junichi Tazawa: The 22-year-old right-hander from the Japanese industrial leagues is making quite a splash in Hot Stove speculation, as fans who had previously never heard his name mentioned in potential free-agent signings are now all scrambling to see if their teams have an interest in the youngster. I can keep this very short and sweet: Tazawa's importance has far less to do with his actual ability than with his path to the United States. That's because just as Hideo Nomo bucked the NPB by "retiring" and then resurfacing with the Dodgers, Tazawa is seeking to thumb Japan's professional leagues in the eye by opting out of draft consideration here in the Far East.

He is a serviceable pitcher with a fair bit of upside; he has decent stuff. But if there's one thing that I've learned a little something about concerning Japanese players in my years following the game here, it's this: unless the player in question is one of his generation's great performers, it's unlikely that he'll make it in the major leagues. Just look at recent experience. Matsuzaka looks like he has a fair shot at a Cy Young at some point. His peer, Hiroki Kuroda, was one of the top five or six pitchers of his generation in Japan, but looks like he'll wind up no better than a third starter in the majors. We all know what's happened to Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu, Masato Yoshii, and Kazuhisa Ishii, to name an unhappy few. Tazawa has done nothing to remotely put himself in even this latter class, but he's nevertheless seeking a guaranteed deal with your club. I'm glad it's not my money.

The important upshot of this situation, however, is that the gentleman's agreement that supposedly exists between NPB and MLB will have to be revisited. The Japanese are extremely territorial about controlling their own amateur talent, though they have done little to give Japanese players any incentive to stay at home. The NPB is an organizational shambles, the players' union is a farce, and Japanese fans increasingly prefer MLB to their own nation's product. That's because it's so poorly marketed, packaged, and distributed in Japan that one has to wonder when Japanese ownership will figure out that, however much they like to blame their problems on the defections of top players to the US, they're the ones responsible for all their woes. Other amateurs will follow Tazawa to the US, and better players than he. The NPB ownership knows this, and understands that they have zero control over this situation, save the cultural pressure they will continue to apply at the high school level. I doubt it will last another generation.

Free Agents and Postings: It's tough to say whether anyone will post their top talent during this offseason, but the aforementioned Tazawa situation may spoil the pot in the short term, as a collective pressure within the NPB may emerge that discourages any Japanese club from dealing with the United States. It remains to be seen whether this will be universally adhered to, but it is something to watch. Fortunately (for some), several high-profile major league clubs have already established working relationships with teams in Japan, and have made diplomatic inroads that should transcend this current crisis.

The two free agents that catch my eye are former Giants' ace Koji Uehara, who I've written about several times in the past, and Chunichi Dragons ace Kenshin Kawakami, who deserves some attention.

Uehara was drafted by the Angels out of university more than a decade ago, but opted to stick with Japan and has guided the Yomiuri Giants ever since. Uehara has requested on several occasions to move to the majors, but the Giants refused him at every turn. He is finally a free agent, and has indicated his intent to move overseas. He is currently 33 years old, and perhaps his best days are well behind him, but overall he ranks directly behind Matsuzaka in terms of recent Japanese baseball history. Uehara is a control pitcher with a freakishly good BB/K ratio, and figures to be something in the neighborhood of a good second starter in the NL, or a fair third starter in the AL. I'd say he's the only Japanese free agent worth spending any kind of major money on this season.

In contrast, Kawakami is a good pitcher, and a very successful one in the context of the Japanese professional ranks. He's gotten by on a good combination of pitches, but earned his reputation by overpowering hitters. He won't do that very often in the major leagues, and I question whether his breaking pitches are going to be enough to get by in the US. There is a place for him in MLB, and he might surprise us all by holding a good portion of his Japanese value, but I have my doubts. My gut and my eyes tell me that Kawakami is only suited for the National League, and shouldn't be counted on for anything more than Kuroda-level numbers next year. That said, I believe Hiroki Kuroda is the superior pitcher, despite Kawakami's more marketable features.

There is a lot more to say, and a lot of excitement to look forward to during this winter's Hot Stove, and on both sides of the Pacific. No doubt you've all become familiar with many of the interesting and informative blogs and websites related to Japanese baseball that have cropped up since the demand exploded for information in the wake of the Matsuzaka posting and subsequent free-agent moves. I hope you find that my work here on BP is a regular part of your online diet to satisfy that craving, and I look forward to bringing you what I dig up or observe about the Japanese game.

Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Mike by clicking here.

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