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Posting, free agents and the always-busy rumor mill

by Wayne Graczyk

Japan’s sports papers are saying the ownership of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows is indicating the team is leaning toward posting two star players for major league availability following the 2006 season. Third baseman Akinori Iwamura and lefty reliever Hirotoshi Ishii are the guys who may be put up for auction in November.

The Nikkan Sports, in its Aug. 15 edition, published a caricature drawing of the images of both players, their heads sticking out of a Japanese-style mail box (posting –get it?), beside which is depicted a sketch of Swallows player-manager Atsuya Furuta shedding tears over the possibility of losing a couple of his best performers.

Iwamura had a so-so first half this season following recovery from a hamstring injury sustained in the World Baseball Classic in March, but he’s the guy who tied a team record with 44 home runs in 2004. He’s also been as hot as the weather lately, with 11 homers in his first 15 games during August, and his season batting stats through games of Aug. 18 include 26 home runs, 58 RBIs and a .305 average.

Closer Ishii, said to be coveted by several MLB clubs, missed three months of this season with a shoulder injury but, over a full schedule in 2005, Ishii was 4-3 with 37 saves and a 1.95 ERA in 61 appearances.

Scouts from at least three National League teams were at Tokyo Dome Aug. 15-17 to check out the Yomiuri Giants vs. Swallows games. While they got to see Iwamura in fine form, there was no chance to watch Ishii because there was no save situation for Yakult and, inexplicably, Ishii was deactivated again following the first game of the series on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, it appears certain the Seibu Lions will post ace right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, and one Japanese sportswriter said a major league club bidding and subsequently negotiating a contract with Matsuzaka may have to put up as much as $100 million, including a $25-30 million posting payoff to Seibu and a $70 million, five-year contract with the player who turns 26 on Sept. 13.

The “Boy Wonder” seems to be in his best form, coming off a complete-game 2-1 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters at Sapporo Dome on Aug. 16. For the year, he’s 12-4 with an even 2.00 ERA.

Other chatter passing through the rumor mill says the Yomiuri Giants are prepared to put together a hefty three-year package deal offer in an effort to keep Korean slugger Lee Seung Yeop, who has only a one-year contract with the Kyojin.

It seems 90 percent sure Lee is also headed for the majors, and the Giants cannot afford to lose their first baseman and cleanup hitter who has a .326 average, 81 RBIs and a Japan-leading 36 home runs as of Friday. Or can they?

Other available free agents this coming off-season will include the Pacific League home run leader, first sacker Michihiro Ogasawara (.307, 26, 73), and it will be interesting to see where he goes, should he decide to leave the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

“Guts,” as he is affectionately known by the Fighters fans, is said to be close to former teammate Hiromitsu Ochiai, currently the manager of the Central League-leading Chunichi Dragons.

The Dragons have hot-hitting American Tyrone Woods (31 homers, .302 average and a country-leading 94 RBIs) at first, but his contract with Nagoya runs out after this season as well.

Another FA is Hiroshima Carp ace pitcher Hiroki Kuroda (11-6, 1.92 ERA). While the MLB scouts are watching him, there has not been much speculation about the right-hander heading across the Pacific. If he stays in Japan and follows the course of others who left the Carp as free agents, Kuroda could be going to one of the two traditionally high-profile teams in the C.L., Yomiuri or Hanshin.

In recent years, ex-Hiroshima players who reached FA status and moved to the Giants include pitcher Kazuhisa Kawaguchi and third baseman Akira Eto, while outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto skipped to the Tigers, as did American infielder Andy Sheets when his contract with the Carp expired following the 2004 season.

There is also speculation Kazuo “Kaz” Matsui may be ready to return to Japan in 2007 after three years of underachieving in the National League. The former Seibu Lions superstar shortstop and Pacific League MVP never came anywhere near the high expectations with the New York Mets and, at last look, he was playing minor league baseball with the Colorado Rockies Triple-A affiliate at Colorado Springs.

Naturally, there are rumbles the Tokyo Giants would also be interested in signing the switch-hitter who is still only 31, should he decide to give up playing in North America.

Rumors are rumors, though. It was about this time a year ago the local sports papers were running colorful front page banner headlines predicting Senichi Hoshino would soon be named the new manager of the Yomiuri Giants. They made it sound like a sure thing, but it never happened.

It will be interesting to see who gets posted and where the FAs end up for the 2007 season but, in the meantime, we’ve got 2006 to finish, with a hot Pacific League pennant race, and the Dragons already with a magic number (34 as of Aug. 19) for clinching their second Central League title in three years.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk by e-mail at wayne@JapanBall.com