The AL West added a couple of the premier international players over the offseason, and both are already contributing to their new teams.
Two high-profile international free agents came to the American League West this year. The two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers won negotiating rights (with a $51.7 million bid) to Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish in December 2011 and signed him to a six-year, $56 million deal the following month. Meanwhile, the small-market Oakland A's surprised everyone in February by landing Cuban center fielder/Internet sensationYoenis Cespedes at four years, $36 million.
Darvish was the better-known quantity, having generated buzz well in advance of his U.S. debut, and was expected to contribute right away. Cespedes came with more questions attached, and it wasn't certain that he would break camp with the big club. But he did, and he made an immediate impact, launching a home run in his big-league debut (amusingly enough, played in Japan).
After starring for opposing teams in the Japan Series, Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada will try to adjust to life in Baltimore and last place, as the Orioles react to the new CBA by plugging their pitching holes with Asian imports.
On November 12th, 2011, as Major League Baseball recovers from one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory, Nippon Professional Baseball begins its own best-of-seven championship: the Japan Series.
Much like MLB, Japanese professional baseball has two leagues—the Central and the Pacific—and much like MLB, the champions of those respective leagues play each other to determine a final champion for the entire season. As NPB has only 12 teams compared to to MLB's 30, however, the playoffs are structured a bit differently; with only six teams per league, NPB does not bother with divisions or Wild Cards—the best three teams in each league make the playoffs, with the league's top seed getting a first-round bye. The second and third seeds play a best-of-three series, and the winner faces the first seed in a best-of-five “Climax Series” that's roughly analogous to MLB's League Championship Series. The winning club from each league's Climax Series is that league's champion and advances to the best-of-seven Japan Series to determine which is the best club in NPB. The Climax Series format was implemented first by the Pacific League in 2004 and then adopted by the Central League three years later. Previously, there had been no real postseason in NPB: the team with the best season record from the Central would play the team with the best season record from the Pacific in the Japan Series, and that was that.
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Michael ends his look at Japanese imports with some conclusions and a look at the future of the transpacific player market.
In the Asian Equation series, I’ve traced the history of the current posting system that imports players from NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball, the Japanese major leagues) and how the success of Ichiro Suzuki has affected it, from the position players who arrived in his wake to the pricey disappointments among starting pitchers and the marginally successful relievers. In this final column, I’ll take a look back to draw conclusions from this history and see what we can expect from the NPB market in the future. As with my previous columns, Patrick Newman’s advice and ideas were very helpful, as is his website, NPB Tracker.
The simplest, broadest conclusion concerns the players themselves, where we must draw an important distinction between talent and skills. As Craig Brown wrote in the comments section of his article on Tsuyoshi Nishioka, “. . . comparing two middle infielders just because they come from Japan is like comparing two middle infielders just because they come from Delaware.” Just because they’re from Japan doesn’t mean we can draw specific conclusions about individual ballplayers, their talents, or their ability to succeed in Major League Baseball. This goes double for Ichiro, whose skills are idiosyncratic on either side of the Pacific. Throwing money at Japanese players expecting them to be slap hitters with weird batting stances and an uncanny ability to find defensive holes is as foolish as thinking every Venezuelan shortstop will field (and endure) like Omar Vizquel. We can’t expect specific players to have certain inherent talents just because they were born in Japan.
Selig's idea of having the MLB champions facing the NPB champs has many intriguing features.
After vehemently opposing international competition, Commissioner Bud Selig seems primed to send the champions of Major League Baseball to Japan to face the champions of Nippon Professional Baseball, reviving the tradition started in the early 20th century.
The most famous American team to tour Japan arrived in Tokyo in November of 1934, loaded with talent beyond belief. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Moe Berg(whose motives for joining the team may have been more political than athletic) led a team of All-Stars across the world as a way to further the growth of baseball. These barnstorming tours were far from new, however, as A.G. Spalding led a world tour as early as 1888 to bring baseball to the world beyond the Atlantic, and the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs trekked far and wide playing each other after the 1913 season in the so-called "Tour to End All Tours" to further that same mission.
The Royals skipper talks about managing on both sides of the Pacific, and his relationship to his players.
Trey Hillman has a world of experience. He was manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters from 2003-2007 before taking the helm in Kansas City, and the 45-year-old Hillman has spent better than half his life in the game. Signed by the Indians in 1985, Hillman spent three years as a player, three as a scout and minor league coach, and 12 as minor league manager in the Yankees organization before his five seasons in Japan. A native of Amarillo, Texas, Hillman was named as the 15th full-time manager in Royals history last October.
With some of the NPB's best young talent and some of its all-time greats, this is Japan's best baseball entertainment value.
A little late on the start to the season, this Pacific League preview reflects the circuit's intriguing storylines and a much more competitive race for its three playoff spots than the Central League will offer in 2008. Last season, I wrote about the Pacific:
Former big leaguer Mike Pagliarulo shares some ideas about consulting and information within MLB.
Mike Pagliarulo hit 32 home runs for the Yankees in 1987, and was a key contributor to the World Series champion Twins in 1991, but his impact on the game has arguably been greater since retiring. Successful, and sometimes controversial, "Pags" has been at the forefront of scouting Japanese baseball for the past 10 years, both advising and correctly predicting results on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. A third baseman during his playing days, Pagliarulo hit .241 with 134 home runs over 11 big league seasons with five teams.
Yu Darvish meets Don Larsen? History was made on the other side of the Pacific, but not quite the way you expect.
A lot has happened in the NPB over the last month. The high school amateur draft was held-a topic for another day-and the exciting race for the Japan Series crown has now come and gone. We're also already considering the future names and faces from the Japanese leagues who might grace the rosters of your favorite MLB club next season. However, before we get to those topics in future articles, let's talk about the Japan Series. The Chunichi Dragons, second-place finishers in the Central League, took on the defending champion Nippon Ham Fighters, who'd repeated as the Pacific League's top club in 2007. How did they get there, and what went down?
As I wrote in my playoff preview, the Dragons were very good down the stretch and dominated every team other than Yomiuri during the season's last two months. The absence of Kosuke Fukudome was damaging to the Dragons' run at first place, but a well-balanced lineup anchored by Tyrone Woods in the cleanup spot kept the offense moving. The Dragons opened the playoffs in a best-of-three matchup with the light-hitting Hanshin Tigers. The Tigers are regulars in the Central field, but haven't shown anything resembling championship form in recent years. Chunichi sent ace Kenshin Kawakami, a potential 2008 free agent, to the mound to start Game One, and he set up a short series by going seven strong innings of two-hit, no-walk, nine-strikeout baseball. Chunichi took the contest easily, 7-0. In my playoff preview, I'd noted that the key pitcher for Chunichi was Kawakami, and he lived up to the challenge. The key player I identified was Masahiko Morino, and he was the offense for Chunichi in Game One, going 3-for-4 with two runs and four RBI, three of which came on a game-breaking three-run homer in the sixth inning. The series was as good as over in the first inning of Game Two, when 23-year-old Hanshin starter Keiji Uezono gave up five runs, essentially handing the Dragons a berth in the League Championship series against Yomiuri.
Will MLB live down to its past when it comes to its relationship with Japan?
Professional Japanese baseball faces an uncertain future. With the success of Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, the World Baseball Classic win, and the hoopla surrounding Daisuke Matsuzaka, Major League Baseball sees Japan as a new pool of talent for North American teams. Through the posting system and soon through signing talent out of school, the one-way flow of stars from the Eastern to the Western Hemisphere could drain talent from the Far East. Unless talent--star talent--actually flows both ways across the Pacific, the Japanese major leagues may slide into outright dependence on Major League Baseball instead of becoming a major league equal.