Asian teams—host China, Japan, South Korea (referred to simply as Korea during the Olympics because of North Korea’s removal from international affairs) and Taiwan (known in international athletic circles as Chinese Taipei as a concession to China)—make up fully half of the 2008 Olympic baseball tournament field. Three of those teams announced their Olympic rosters this week, just as USA Baseball did.
Unlike USA Baseball, those three nations were able to send many of their best players, though like the American team, Japan will not have any of the major leaguers, such as Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who helped it win the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.
Japan’s roster will have several names American fans should recognize, however, led by righthander Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters. Darvish is perhaps the top talent in Japan, a hard-throwing righthander who already has won more than 40 games by age 21 in Japan and who sports a career ERA under 2.50. Japan’s roster also features national team stalwarts such as catcher Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri Giants) and lefthander Tsuyoshi Wada (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks), who have played for Japan since their college days.
Other names of note include righthanders Kenshin Kawakami, a 33-year-old expected to come to the U.S. after this season; Koji Uehara, who pitched well in the ’04 Olympics and ’06 World Baseball Classic but has struggled this season (2-4, 6.46) for the Yomiuri Giants; and 19-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, the No. 1 overall pick in Japan’s 2006 draft. The top position players include Hanshin Tigers first baseman Takahiro Arai, a 31-year-old slugger who belted 43 home runs in 2006, and outfielder Takahiko "G.G." Sato, who ranks fourth in the Pacific League this season with 20 homers.
All of Japan’s players play in the country’s major league, as was the case in 2004, when Japan was upset by Australia in the Olympic semifinals and had to beat Canada to win the bronze medal. Japan won the inaugural 1984 Olympic gold medal when baseball was a demonstration sport, but since baseball became a medal sport in 1992, Japan has won silver once (’96) and two bronzes (2004, ’92). The country’s greatest international success came with its 2006 WBC championship.
South Korea, Team USA’s opening opponent, reached the WBC semifinals in 2006 and was Team USA’s toughest foe in Sydney in 2000, losing two games started by Roy Oswalt. The Koreans have slugger Lee Seung-yeop on their roster, perhaps the country’s most recognizable player who hit five home runs in seven WBC games. Just four WBC alums made this Olympic roster, however, as big league righthanders Byung-Hyun Kim, Chan Ho Park and Jae Seo did not make the cut or were not available. The most recognizable pitchers to American fans will be former Red Sox and Expos righty Seung Song, a member of the projected Korean rotation, and lefthander Jung-keun Bong, a former Braves farmhand. Song and Bong are slated to be two of the team’s four starters.
The Korea Times reported that the biggest omissions were first baseman Kim Tae-kyun, who leads the Korean Baesball Organization in home runs, RBIs and slugging this season for the Hanwha Eagles; and Son Min-han, a Lotte Giants pitcher who is 8-3, 2.53.
Taiwan has a roster featuring Futures Game MVP Che-Hsuan Lin of the Red Sox system. Also making the roster was former Rockies farmhand Chin-Hui Tsao, who pitched for Taiwan in the ’04 Olympics as a reliever, and former Dodgers farmhand Chin-Feng Chen. Taiwan will play without Dodgers Hong-Chih Kuo and Chin-Lung Hu, both members of its ’04 WBC roster, as was Indians farmhand Sung-Wei Tseng, who also isn’t on the Olympic roster.
Taiwan’s team has three amateur pitchers: Lee Chen-Chang, Lo Chia-Jen and Cheng Kai-Wen. The respected Website Taiwan Baseball reports Lo turned down an offer of around $200,000 to sign with the Red Sox this spring and called him the nation’s hardest-throwing amateur, touching 95 mph this spring. Cheng is a 5-foot-9 righthander with a good slider and solid-average velocity, while Lee pitched for Taiwan’s college national team this summer and in the Alaska League last summer, throwing in the low 90s last summer.
[Editor’s note: BA puts surnames last for players from Korea and Taiwan who have played in the U.S., but uses the Asian convention of putting the surname first for players such as Lee Seung-yeop who have not played in the West.]