Kazuhisa Ishii is a man in demand.
Two weeks ago on a night when Yakult’s left-handed ace started for the Swallows in a game at Jingu Stadium against the Yomiuri Giants, both the Boston Red Sox international scouting director Ray Poitevint and Omar Minaya, the top international scout for the New York Mets, were in attendance.
There is always a market for a good southpaw in the major leagues, especially one who is now in his 10th season as a professional. So it is no surprise to see MLB teams sending in their heavyweights to evaluate the 27-year-old Chiba native.
Ishii, who entered this season with a lifetime record of 66-40 with a 3.38 ERA, won the Central League ERA title last season (2.61) despite posting a 10-9 record as the Swallows finished fourth in the CL.
In 1997, when the Swallows last won the Japan Series, Ishii went 10-4 with a sterling ERA of 1.91 and threw a no-hitter in Yokohama against the BayStars. The next season he posted a 14-6 mark and struck out a CL-best 241 batters in 196 innings.
The new president of the Swallows — Itaru Taguchi — is said to be very fiscally minded and looking for ways to raise cash for the team. Thus, from the first game of this season, rumors have swirled that the team would make Ishii available through the posting system to the highest bidding team from the major leagues after the season is over.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Poitevint gave his evaluation of Ishii’s ability and his opinion on what it will take to snare the southpaw’s services.
“I’ve seen Ishii pitch 12-15 times over the past three or four years,” says Poitevint. “I don’t think he is pitching as well this season as he has in the past, but I still think he is a good prospect.
“I certainly think he is capable of pitching in the big leagues and probably being a No. 3 starter. I have always felt that way about him. I don’t know his character, which we would have to check out, and I don’t know about the wear and tear on his arm, which is why he would have to pass a physical.”
Poitevint feels that Ishii’s poise is the key to his success.
“I think his mental toughness on the mound sets up everything. I think on a given night all of his pitches are equal, which is what makes him a real competitor. He can overpower you with his fastball when he wants to, because he has good movement on it. “He can also throw that forkball up there and you will miss that pitch too. He also throws an off-speed pitch with his arm action being the same as on his fastball, which a lot of guys have trouble with.
“That’s a key, when a pitching coach is training somebody, they will tell them ‘Your changeup is going to be great if you can make it look like your fastball.’ One advantage Ishii has is that his off-speed pitch looks like his fastball.”
Poitevint says that despite the fact that big league teams are always in search of a good left-hander, he doesn’t see any club breaking the bank to acquire the 183-cm, 85-kg Ishii. “I can’t see any team making as big an investment in him as in Ichiro (whom the Seattle Mariners paid $13.25 million just to acquire from the Orix BlueWave last year). I feel we would have an interest in Ishii. We wouldn’t go overboard to get him, but we would be competitive. We definitely have as much of an interest in him as anybody.”
The current posting system allows a Japanese team to declare a player a free agent prior to him actually having enough time in (presently nine years) to become one. Major league clubs then can place a bid for the player and the Japanese team can then sell that player to the highest bidder or reject the offer and retain the player.
“If he has enough good games and the right people are here to see him when he does, we are probably talking about a three-year contract for between $12 million to $15 million,” Poitevint says.
“The key will be, if he is posted, how much the Swallows will try to get in return. That can take away from the player. Let’s say the Swallows say, ‘We want $10 million for him.’ I don’t think they can get $10 million for him.
“If the Swallows ask for $5 million and the player wants $15 million, that’s a $20 million package. A ball club would probably offer around $17 million total.”
There are other considerations as well. Family will be an issue in the pursuit of Ishii.
“I think we would have to cultivate him, because his wife (Fuji TV announcer Ayako Kisa), from what we hear, is leaning toward a West Coast team. I think we would have to sell them on Boston if we get to that point.”
Although Boston is a lot farther away than the West Coast, the fact that the Red Sox have Hideo Nomo and Tomokazu Ohka currently on their staff certainly wouldn’t hurt their chances of landing Ishii.
Kisa, it should be noted, recently announced that she is four months pregnant, so the stage is set for a big move by father, mother and baby to the States in time for Opening Day 2002.
Poitevint, who has signed more than 200 players who have gone on to play in the majors, says that Ishii’s mental makeup will be crucial when it comes down to a team deciding to put in a bid for him. “His character is going to be the key. What kind of guy is he? That’s what people want to know.
“Ichiro’s character is perfect. But if you go back to a guy like Katsuhiro Maeda (the former Seibu Lions pitcher — who had a reputation for being flaky — who was signed by the Yankees in 1996), he had as much ability as anybody, but he never got out of AA ball. Most scouts, except the Yankees, knew about his character.”