With seven straight Pacific League batting titles and a lifetime average of .353 topping his resume, Orix BlueWave superstar Ichiro Suzuki is now preparing for life in the major leagues.
The 27-year-old right-fielder will be a hot commodity when big-league clubs vie for the right to negotiate with the Nagoya native, according to one major-league expert and longtime scout in Asia, and the Boston Red Sox are one of the teams interested in acquiring the services of the fleet-footed batting star.
“I would say that about 10 clubs out of 30 will be in the hunt. If they all knew about him, it would be 30 out of 30. It is going to matter who has scouted him and seen him the most.”
This is the opinion of Ray Poitevint, the Red Sox executive director of international baseball operations, who has been scouting Asia and bringing players to Japan for the past four decades and has signed several players from Japan and Korea for Boston.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Poitevint analyzed Ichiro’s overall game and how the bidding for his services is likely to unfold.
“He is a real quality player. Will he hit in the major leagues? It will depend on if he can handle a 95-mph (152-kph) fastball right in on his hands. That’s the question for every good hitter.
“Ichiro has been lifting some weights and strengthening himself the past year and a half or so. He’s an excellent runner. He’s an excellent outfielder. He has very good accuracy on his throws, which most major leaguers don’t have. He’s a true athlete.
“Where would he fit in the lineup, because he has a 7 or 7.5 percent strikeout ratio for every 100 at-bats? Let’s say he did it 10 percent of the time, he would still be an ideal leadoff hitter or someone hitting third to set the table, because of his ability to make contact.” Poitevint, who signed pitchers Tomokazu Ohka and Samson Lee for the Red Sox, says the only question mark in Ichiro’s game is what kind of power numbers he can put up. In seven full seasons and parts of two others, Ichiro hit 118 home runs and drove in 592 runs for the BlueWave.
“He is probably going to run a little short on power. He uses the whole field, so I think if he hit 15 home runs you would be getting a plus. He might end up hitting 35 home runs. The rest of his game is very superior. He is a starting player.”
To land a huge contract, Ichiro would have to be more productive in the power categories, according to Poitevint.
“His value is not based upon what he has done in Japan, but what he can do in the big leagues and his overall tools. I’m a strong fan of his. I only question how many times he can get the ball out of the park.
“To get big, big money, you have to be a guy like (Red Sox shortstop) Nomar Garciaparra, who can play in the center of the diamond, which Ichiro can. You have to be able to run and steal bases, which Ichiro can. But Garciaparra is going to hit more than 25 home runs and have more than 100 RBIs and he might lead the league in hitting.”
That being said, it is clear that the Red Sox feel that Ichiro, who set a new Pacific League batting record by hitting .387 this season, would fit right into their program and would be prepared to make a substantial contract offer to him.
“Other than the power, I think Suzuki has the chance to lead the league in hitting and contribute in an excellent way on the defensive part of his game. I have seen him play more than 50 games, probably more than anybody in professional baseball.”
Poitevint, who has great respect in international baseball circles, puts Ichiro, who has 1,278 career hits, in a pretty exclusive class when it comes to talent.
“There’s a lot of things that he does that some people can’t do except the stars. Like Robin Yount did, like Garciaparra, (New York Yankees shortstop) Derek Jeter and (Seattle Mariners shortstop) Alex Rodriguez do.
“I don’t think there are enough pitchers who can do damage on him on the inside that he can’t make it up on the guys who can’t do it. The greatest hitters we have fail 70 percent of the time. I would take a gamble that even if he fails 70 percent of the time, he is still going to be a star.”
Poitevint says that Ichiro’s fate should be determined in the next six weeks.
“Under the current system, all 30 major-league teams will be notified that Ichiro is available and it will come down to who bids the highest for the right to negotiate with him. If Orix accepts the highest offer, then it gives you permission to take the next step.
“I would think this is all going to have to be wrapped up by the middle of December to make it practical for everybody. The teams are usually given 8-10 working days to bid on the player. Once the winning team is notified, they begin negotiating with the player.”
Only time will tell how everything plays out, states Poitevint.
“It will be interesting to see what happens. Whenever it gets into big money, a lot of teams find reasons for not being aggressive. But if he was an American guy, and had come up through the minor-league system, he would be a star by now in the majors just like he has been a star in Japan.”
The sweepstakes for Ichiro, who set the Japan record for hits in a single season with 210 in 1994, will likely feature the big-market, big-money teams.
“The clubs that are active in the international market besides the Red Sox are the Atlanta Braves, Yankees, Mets and Dodgers. Seattle, because he is Japanese, will definitely be in the picture. But no one has an edge, because of the structure with the two commissioner’s offices now, it is whoever bids the highest.
“At the same time, who is going to know what to bid? You don’t worry about the player until you get past the bid. Some teams are paying fees completely out of sight for a Cuban defector who ends up being a so-so player. These go into the millions of dollars, because there is a mystique about Cuban players.”
Poitevint says that teams that bid on Suzuki will already know where they want him to play and it would be best to leave him where he feels most comfortable.
“There will be at least 6-10 clubs that will bid. If you are going to bid, you are not thinking about ‘we have to find a place for this guy’ because they already know where he is going to play. Ichiro is a gifted right fielder or center fielder. He could easily play left field, but why would you take him out of his regular position?
“Even though there are players in the big leagues who have proven themselves, he is better than some of them. If you sign a guy who is better, you have to play him. The Yankees have a spot, the Dodgers certainly have a spot, Seattle has room in right field. The Braves could use a guy like him. He is superior and equal to the best.”
In terms of salary, Poitevint feels that where Ichiro stands on this issue will determine if he decides to play in the majors next season.
“He already makes $5 million a year. Is he in a position that he would take less on an escalated agreement? Or is it going to come down to whether he has to make more money than he is making in Japan? That is the question.
“Ichiro is a first-class athlete, but there a lot of players in the majors who don’t make $5 million that have five, six, seven, eight years of major-league experience and have a lot of credibility.”
After the grumbling among other players on the New York Yankees when the team signed Hideki Irabu in 1997, clubs may be fearful of disturbing team harmony by shelling out big money for a player unproven in the majors.
“Because he did it in Japan, he will probably have to serve an apprenticeship his first year. He will probably end up getting a three- or four-year contract but the first year’s salary will not be what he is accustomed to. You have got to keep peace in the family with the established players who have paid their dues.
“His deal is going to have to be structured in a certain way and he is going to have to understand why that is. The end result is he will still have guaranteed money and get the financial package he wants. A good organization is concerned about its other players.”
Poitevint, who has brought many successful players to Japan over the years, including Bobby Rose to the Yokohama BayStars, believes Ichiro has been fortunate to play for a team like the BlueWave, because they have his best interests at heart.
“It’s obvious that he has been treated well by Orix. He’s making $5 million a year and he could leave with no obligation after next season, but the ballclub is trying to assist him by letting him go now.”