Coming to America: Part I

The 2005-2006 off-season offers the widest availability of Japanese talent moving to the majors, in history. At least one Nippon Professional Baseball MVP will be making the move, and possibly as many as four former Sawarma (NPB Cy Young) winners could also make the trek out west.

Between the dual methodology of posting and free agency, the influence of the Japanese on Major League Baseball has included a Japanese player in each of the last four World Series. MLB has also seen an MVP winner, a top 10 outfielder, a Cy Young candidate and a Rolaids Relief Award winner come from Japan's solid crop of talent.

Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, both Los Angeles clubs, San Diego, the White Sox, Detroit, Milwaukee St. Louis, both New York teams and Boston have all had at least one of the 24 Japanese players on their roster within their first two years after leaving Japan.

The most significant players have signed with the Mariners, Yankees, Mets, Angels, White Sox, Dodgers and Padres in the past four years. That list should remain the same over the next year or two. So who are the players that could make the largest impact this off-season and what kind of contracts could be expected?

This look shows their basic unadjusted statistics for 2005 in Japan, some basic biographical information, a briefing on their past performance, and lastly some speculation as to their impact in Major League Baseball. Many of the most intriguing players have not been posted yet, and are unlikely to ever be posted. This list will be updated and adjusted as news presents itself. Several players that have asked to be posted are still negotiating with their teams and a change in their status would move them up the list, or potentially off the list entirely.

HITTERS

Links for NPB players re-direct to NPB League Statistics

Kenji Johjima - C (Free Agent)
Team: Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
DOB: 6-8-76 Exp: 11 yrs.
Ht: 5'11" Wt: 198
B/T: R/R
Stats:116 G, .309/.381/.557, 24 HR, 22-2B, 33 BB, 32 K

The one-time Pacific League MVP, Johjima is in his second year trying to leave Nippon Professional Baseball. In his MVP season three years ago, he led the league in every major offensive category. Though his last two seasons haven't been quite as impressive, he is still a power-hitting catcher that has cut back on games caught and still finished in the top 15 in most offensive area. Johjima has led the league in caught-stealing percentage four consecutive seasons.

The biggest questions concerning his abilities to succeed in MLB will not be whether or not he can hit, but if he can be a suitable backstop in the majors while lacking the ability to communicate in English. He has caught several English-speaking pitchers over the past five years, but all of those pitchers had to learn Japanese baseball expressions to communicate with Johjiima.

The 29-year-old also suffered a minor shoulder injury during the season and a broken shin at the end of the year. For these reasons most speculation is that during the first half of the year, he would only be a part-time catcher while also serving time at DH, as he learns the language and regains full physical health.

Interested MLB Teams: Mariners, Mets, Padres
Chance of Signing in MLB: 99%

MLB Comp
Midline: A.J. Pierzynski
High: Ivan Rodriguez
Contract: 3 years @ 12-18 Million

Kosuke Fukudome - OF (Not To Be Posted in ‘05)
Team: Chunichi Dragons
DOB:4-26-77 Exp: 7 yrs.
Ht: 5'11" Wt: 187
B/T: L/R
Stats:142 G, .328/.430/.590, 28 HR, 39-2B, 13 SB, 93 BB, 128 K

In 2002, Fukudome's .343 batting average was tops in the league and his 186 hits that same year set a team record. Formerly a shortstop, Fukudome has won multiple Gold Gloves and was selected to the Best Nine in 2002 and 2003. He broke his finger getting hit by a pitch just weeks before the Dragons were to go to the 2004 Japan Series and did not play.

So this year he set a goal to play in every game, falling just four games short (142 of 146). In 2005, the Dragons' right fielder led the league in doubles and OBP, and placed second triples with six.

Fukudome is pronounced Fu-ku-do-ma, though the American players during the last MLB All-Star tour had much fun with how it looks on paper. They also enjoyed his demonstration of power. Kosuke will not be coming to the U.S. this year, and almost certainly not next year. When he does come he may be the best hitter that Japan has to offer. He could easily match Hideki Matsui's Major League career. If your team needs a left-handed corner outfielder when he is available, hope that they make a play for him.

MLB Comp
Midline: Raul Ibanez
High: Hideki Matsui

Akinori Iwamura – 3B (Not to be posted in ‘05)
Team: Yakult Swallows DOB: 2-9-79 Exp: 9 yrs.
Ht: 5'9" Wt: 176
B/T: L/R
2005 Stats: 144 G, .319/.338 /.555, 30 HR, 31-2B, 63 BB, 146 K

Perhaps typical of power hitters, Iwamura gets it one way or the other. In addition to his 30-homer, 30-double season, he led the league in strikeouts, fanning 146 times in 618 plate appearances. In his breakout 2004 season, he tied the club record for homeruns (44), along with setting the Central League record for most strikeouts (173). Best Nine selection in 2002, and a four- time Gold Glove winner at third base (2000-2002, 2004).

Almost certainly not to be posted this winter, Akinori is a solid and powerful third baseman who would likely be pursued by a couple of teams. His lack of plate control and high strikeout rates would make him a risky signing that might comp to Russell Branyan when he comes to the majors. Not likely to play in the Majors in 2006.

MLB Comp
Midline: Backup Corner IF/Bench Power
High: Geoff Jenkins

The second and final part of "Coming to America" will be published on Monday, November 7.

Dave Clark is better known as "bedirthanaverage" on the InsideThePark Mariners forums. Jim Houle is best known as "garstar" on the same forums. InsideThePark.com would like to thank both contributors for their in-depth work on this feature.

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