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Hideo Nomo was in the running for two Cy Young Awards. Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki were both rookies of the year. Ichiro also won an MVP trophy and set the single-season hits record a few years after taking the AL's top individual honor. Hideki Matsui has endeared himself to New York fans with his hard-nosed, consistent play. These stars have entered the majors gradually, with one or two role players per year making the trans-Pacific journey. True superstars are certainly rare.
This past offseason, Major League Baseball may have seen the beginnings of a startling migration of talent. Three AL East teams signed high-profile Japanese free agents -- Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Red Sox, Kei Igawa with the Yankees, and Akinori Iwamura with the Devil Rays. The Red Sox also signed lefty reliever Hideki Okajima, while the Pirates are giving veteran pitcher Masumi Kuwata a chance to make the team.
What does this mean for American baseball? Plenty. Teams are always looking for new sources of talent; observe the rise of Latin baseball players over the past few years. Japan, and Asia as a whole, may become breeding grounds for uniquely-skilled free agents, clamoring to compete against the world's best baseball talent. Asian players may bring rare and exciting skill sets to the fold. Ichiro is halfway down the line when he swings, while Nomo's twisting windup baffled hitters. What tricks will Matsuzaka and the rest have up their sleeves?
Jerry Crasnick: "The games are markedly different in some respects. Japanese clubs play six days a week, with Monday as a designated off day, so a regular breather is built into the schedule. Major League Baseball features more of a power game, with pitchers who throw harder and hitters with more thump. And the talent level is more uniform on big league rosters, even if you might not know it by watching the Kansas City Royals or Washington Nationals."
Feb. 27, 2007
Hype can get lost in translation
Trey Hillman: "The Japanese players are a coach's dream. The loyalty and dedication, the willingness to work, it's outstanding. When I was with the Yankees, I believed we were doing it right, and that our players throughout the development system were the cream of the crop in terms of their effort and skill. But the Japanese players, my guys with the Nippon Ham Fighters, they will flat work all day. They are on a mission. They do not let up. And that's part of their comfort level, actually. They want to be immersed in the game."
March 1, 2007
Quality of play now on par with majors
Kei Igawa, SP, New York Yankees
2006 Central League Stats: 14-9 W-L, 2.97 ERA, 3.96 K/BB, 8.35 K/9, 1.10 WHIP
Contract: 5 years, $20 million
Posting Fee: $26,000,194
Akinori Iwamura, 3B, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
2006 Central League Stats: .311 AVG, .389 OBP, .544 SLG, 32 HR, 77 RBI
Contract: 3 years, $7.7 million
Posting Fee: $4.5 million
Hideki Okajima, RP, Boston Red Sox
2006 Pacific League Stats: 2-2 W-L, 2.14 ERA, 4.5 K/BB, 10.5 K/9, 1.11 WHIP
Contract: 2 years, $2.5 million
Posting Fee: None, free agent