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Who's the Next Ichiro?

By Alan Schwarz

Photo: Larry Goren
SEATTLE–There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of a Japanese position player making an impact in the major leagues tickled scouts’ funny bones. Guys over there don’t have the power. They can’t handle fastballs.

The 2001 season changed all assumptions. The Mariners’ sensational Ichiro Suzuki won the American League batting title with a .350 average, played a spectacular right field and revived respect for the dynamic leadoff hitter in this homer-happy era. Bobby Valentine’s proclamation last October that Ichiro was among the top five players in the world no longer drips with hyperbole.

While Seattle teammate Aaron Sele correctly claims, "You can’t look at one player and make an assumption about an entire country," the success of reputed middling player Tsuyoshi Shinjo with the Mets has shown the Land of the Rising Sun has stars rising just as fast. Shinjo batted .268-10-56, played well at all three outfield positions and in a five-week period in the first half collected seven game-winning RBIs.

"At the beginning I didn’t even realize how good Ichiro was," Mariners DH Edgar Martinez says. "I think the talent is better than I thought. There can be more talent out there."

Teams are scrambling to get a leg up on scouting players, and preparing for the tricky route by which big league clubs can sign players away from Japan. Veterans with 10 years’ experience can be unrestricted free agents, while those with less can be "posted" by their teams, allowing major league clubs to make closed bids with the winner paying that sum to the Japanese team for the right to negotiate with the player.

Ichiro went through the posting process but was virtually predestined to go to the Mariners. They have a strong relationship with his old club, the Orix BlueWave, and had signed former Japanese star Kazuhiro Sasaki as a free agent the year before.

Competition should be higher for players next time around–the Mariners, Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees and Mets are known as having the best Pacific Rim ties–as Japanese players look to Shinjo as proof that even non-superstars can succeed in the majors.

"Some teams need money, and could post players earlier than they need to," one scouting director says. "It’s tough to know what will happen. You need inside info on each team."

Speaking of inside info, here are the four Japanese position players (and one pitcher) who could jump to the majors and become next season’s Ichiro and Shinjo:

28, Yakult Swallows
Call him a Japanese David Wells or a rotund Hideo Nomo, but we’ll likely be calling Ishii a major leaguer next year.

Ishii speaks fluent English and looks like a No. 3 or 4 starter, thanks to an above-average fastball and an assortment of strong breaking pitches, including a forkball. Pudgy and somewhat eccentric like Wells, he went 12-6, 3.37 this season with 151 strikeouts and 63 walks in 171 innings. Last year he led the Central League with 210 strikeouts in 183 innings and a 2.60 ERA.

Having expressed a desire to follow former teammate Masato Yoshii to the majors, Ishii isn’t yet eligible for free agency. Yakult officials, though, have said they will post him. The Indians have an inside track thanks to their working relationship with the Swallows.

One AL scout says Ishii has had persistent shoulder trouble and often tries to get six days’ rest between starts. "He’ll have to pass a physical, and I’m not sure he’ll do that," the scout says.

Another claims a pitching coach will have to tinker with Ishii’s finger pressure on his fastball to get more movement. Ishii’s wife prefers a West Coast team, so the Mariners, Dodgers and Angels (who employ reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa) could become suitors.

Hideki Matsui
Hideki Matsui
27, Tokyo Yomiuri Giants
Opposing Central League pitchers consider Matsui the toughest out in the league. No wonder: He won the CL batting title this season with .333-36-104 numbers and in 2000 led the league with 42 homers and 108 RBIs. "His power is beyond everyone else’s over there," Sasaki says.

A strong (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) lefthanded hitter who could be a particular target for the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox, Matsui also runs well for a slugger, has the range for center field and the arm for right. Japan’s iron man, he has played in more than 1,000 consecutive games since the middle of 1993, his rookie season.

One scout praises Matsui’s mental toughness and work ethic, and says he’s an above-average slugger waiting to happen. Another wonders if his power will translate more into doubles than home runs, and sees a funky trigger mechanism that could cause problems, though that certainly didn’t hurt Ichiro.

While Matsui says he hasn’t thought about jumping to the United States, he rejected a huge, multiyear extension from the Giants to keep his options open. A nine-year veteran, he will be eligible for free agency after next season. Nicknamed Godzilla, Matsui has the "Godzilla" movie theme played over the Tokyo Dome speakers before his at-bats, a practice that would surely delight the fans of whichever team he might play for.

Kazuo Matsui
Kazuo Matsui
26, Seibu Lions
An eight-year veteran, Matsui (no relation to Hideki) is one of the few Japanese switch-hitters and has been considered the country’s best all-around player since Ichiro’s exodus.

One scout says Matsui has the arm and range for shortstop but would be better suited for second base on a contender and might not have the patience to bat leadoff. "You might have to show patience with him at first," the scout says.

Another is more optimistic, claiming Matsui is a half-step faster than Ichiro (now considered the fastest player in the American League), has the instincts to steal bases and will have the punch to bat leadoff. The 1998 Pacific League MVP, Matsui hit .308-24-76 with 94 runs in 140 games this season.

Matsui apparently doesn’t like the posting system–because he would have no say in which team gets his negotiating rights–and would prefer to become a free agent in two years. Rumors persist that Seibu owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, impressed by the BlueWave getting more than $13 million to negotiate with Ichiro, will post Matsui this offseason. Perhaps to ward off interest from major league clubs, Matsui says he isn’t considering jumping to North America.

Nobuhiko Matsunaka
27, Fukuoka Daiei Hawks
Another powerful lefthanded hitter, Matsunaka hit .334-36-122 in 130 games this season just four years after turning pro. He was the 2000 Pacific League MVP after a .312-33-106 season, and is still on the upswing of his career.

Calling Matsunaka an average or better first baseman, one scout says, "I’d be completely surprised if he doesn’t excel in the United States."

Because he is more of a gap-to-gap guy like Ichiro, Matsunaka’s swing could translate better to the big leagues. The problem is that first basemen must hit for power. Calling him a less defensive David Segui and Travis Lee isn’t exactly a compliment. He has little speed to compensate.

Because Matsunaka won’t be eligible for free agency until 2007, speculating about him as a major leaguer could be premature. But Daiei could decide to cash in early, as Matsunaka’s relative youth could make him particularly attractive to a big league club.

Norihiro Nakamura
Norihiro Nakamura
28, Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes
Packing 200 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, Nakamura teamed with American Tuffy Rhodes to hit 101 homers this season (Rhodes 55, Nakamura 46). The team went from last place a year ago to the Japan Series.

Though being in Rhodes’ power class doesn’t guarantee success–Rhodes hit just 13 home runs in 590 major league at-bats–Nakamura does have his teammate’s endorsement: "Nori should give (the majors) a try if he has the chance," Rhodes says. "He could be a regular on several clubs."

One scout considers the righthanded-hitting Nakamura a Double-A player with potential, one who doesn’t have the reflexes for third and strikes out too much. Another likes his defense, yet is also concerned with his hitting approach. "The American style of play may eat him up," the scout says. "He’s a grip-and-rip guy."

Even after hitting .320 with 132 RBIs, the modest (though yellow- and orange-haired) Nakamura says he isn’t that good. Again, he may be trying to dampen enthusiasm, as in one year he’ll be a free agent who can choose his major league employer. Many believe the Buffaloes will post him now to benefit from the bidding process.

Some in Japan worry that the immediate success of their major leaguers in the United States, from Nomo to Yoshii and Hasegawa to Sasaki and Ichiro, could siphon off so much talent that their major leagues will wither like the Negro Leagues in the 1950s. Attendance was down sharply this season, with many fans forgoing broadcasts of their teams to watch early-morning live feeds of Mariners games.

Ichiro, a true superstar in Japan with his every word and move scrutinized, has spoken little about the impact of any exodus. Others are less reticent.

"(Players) might think, ‘I can go to the U.S. at last. I can take the next step,’ " Shinjo says of his impact. "I really hope that’s so. I think it’s important to have good players in Japan for the sake of Japanese baseball. But on the other hand, if you’re good enough and want the highest level, no one can stop it. It will be a lot of controversy. But the good players will want to come to the U.S. to play."

Adds Sasaki, who left as a free agent, "Ichiro and I followed the rules of baseball in Japan. We didn’t leave on bad terms. The feelings have been OK. If the players do want to come here, it’ll be because they want to play in the major leagues. If they decide to come over, they’re deciding that Japanese baseball is not giving them what they want.

"It’s their life, their baseball career. If they want to play here, that’s their choice. If they believe the leagues in Japan do enough for them, they’ll stay."

Contributing: Wayne Graczyk.

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