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Welcome to MLB players; hot hibachi league getting warm

by Wayne Graczyk

A sincere yokoso (welcome) to manager Bruce Bochy and all the coaches, players and staff members on the current major league tour of Japan.

Hopefully, this will not be the last in the series of Nichibei Yakyu games, which have been held for more than 70 years.

You know it’s time for them to be here when it’s an even-numbered year, your kids are eating Halloween candy, U.S. presidential or mid-term elections are about to be held, and the sumo wrestlers are gathering in Fukuoka for the Kyushu Basho.

Several of the rikishi usually show up at the game at Yahoo JAPAN Dome, scheduled this year for Nov. 8 as the tour finale.

The MLB people are all saying they will do whatever they can to convince a reluctant Japanese players union to continue these games, and we wish them good luck.

Nichibei Yakyu should go on.

Meanwhile, the hot stove league — or hot hibachi league, as it is sometimes referred to here in Japan — is warming.

On Nov. 9 we should know which MLB team will have won the Daisuke Matsuzaka posting sweepstakes, and we’re all anxious to know what will happen with Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman, just back from the U.S. after interviewing for the skipper’s job at Texas, Oakland and San Diego.

Also, will Yakult Swallows third baseman Akinori Iwamura attract interest from MLB clubs during his posting?

Will the Hanshin Tigers post ace lefty pitcher Kei Igawa?

Who will get the high-profile free agents: Hiroshima Carp pitcher Hiroki Kuroda and PL home run and RBI leader Michihiro Ogasawara, the Fighters first baseman?

Is ex-Yomiuri Giants hurler Masumi Kuwata going to catch on with another team? All the answers are coming soon.

Among foreign player names being bantered about as possible candidates for Japan in 2007 are the following: outfielder Chad Allen of the Kansas City Royals for the Orix Buffaloes, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Ryan Vogelsong with the Hanshin Tigers, and Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Andy Green, headed for the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Also, first baseman Kevin Witt is on course for a Japan return, this time with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

His former team, the Yokohama BayStars, reportedly will look to acquire pitchers Scott Chiasson from the Cincinnati Reds and Jose Diaz of Kansas City.

Allen 31, he hit .314 with 14 home runs and 78 RBIs at Triple-A Omaha in 2006, and has major league experience with the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Florida Marlins and Texas Rangers.

Allen’s name has been mentioned several times in recent years as a Japan prospect.

Vogelsong, 29 and a right-hander, has pitched in 120 major league games with the San Francisco Giants and the Pirates, winning 10 and losing 22. He was 4-5 with a 2.66 ERA at Indianapolis during the just-concluded season.

The 29-year-old Green, listed as a middle infielder, was the Triple-A MVP in 2005, batting .345 with 19 home runs and 79 RBIs for Tucson.

According to press reports, he’s ready to sign a 38 million yen ($330,000) contract to play in Sapporo next season.

Witt, a slugger who knocks the cover off the ball at the AAA level but can’t seem to make it in the majors, would be getting a second chance in Japan, having played the 2005 season with Yokohama.

Or, more accurately, played most of the year with the ‘Stars Shonan Searex farm club.

He never really got an opportunity in Yokohama last year after a stellar 2004 season with Memphis, the top farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals, where he posted numbers of .306, 36, 107.

However, shortly after coming to Japan, he had a child with an illness and could not give all his concentration to his game. The BayStars cut him after the 2005 campaign.

From what I hear, everything is fine now, including his 2006 stats at Durham, the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Witt batted .291, again hammered 36 homers and had 99 RBIs.

There’s no reason now why he can’t put up those kinds of figures in Sendai, and his addition to the Eagles’ lineup would give Rakuten a tremendous boost.

The lefty-swinging Witt would form a potent one-two foreign player punch with third baseman Jose Fernandez, and if the Eagles can sign free agent Kazuo Matsui to play shortstop and get some pitching help, that club could be a surprise playoff contender next year.

Chiasson 29, a righty, was the closer at Louisville this past season, saving 29, while posting a 3-2 won-lost record and a 1.91 ERA.

However, if the BayStars get him, his role may be as a set-up man because the team already has the popular Marc Kroon as its game-ending specialist.

Diaz, only 26 and from the Dominican Republic, is also a right-handed reliever who was 2-3 with a 4.00 ERA in 41 games with Omaha in 2006.

Among other questionable situations to be cleared up are the status of Chunichi Dragons first baseman Tyrone Woods, whose two-year contract just ran out, and we’ll see if Nagoya outfielder Alex Ochoa will return to Japan in 2007.

Officials of the Central and Pacific Leagues are trying to figure out how to put together the 2007 Japan pro baseball schedule, now that the number of interleague games will be reduced from 36 to 24.

It is rather awkward, since they are going to have to plan for two-game, rather than three-game, series.

That means playing Tuesday-Wednesday, Thursday-Friday and Saturday-Sunday, with Monday off.

Or maybe some of the series will be Wednesday-Thursday, Friday-Saturday and Sunday-Monday, with Tuesday off.

A preliminary schedule will most likely be released about Nov. 20.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com