About this time of year, someone usually asks me, “Are you going to keep writing the column through the winter?” or “What is there to write about during the offseason?”
My answers are “yes” and “plenty.”
It is actually easier to file the “Baseball Bullet-In” between November and March than it is from April to October.
The “hot stove league,” sometimes referred to in Japan as the “hot hibachi league,” keeps everything warm with news of player transactions, foreigners coming and going and other items of interest in the world of Japanese baseball.
Questions to be answered this time include the future of four Japanese free agents: outfielder Kosuke Fukudome of the Chunichi Dragons, closer Masahide Kobayashi of the Chiba Lotte Marines and infielder Takahiro Arai and ace pitcher Hiroki Kuroda of the Hiroshima Carp.
Fukudome appears headed for either the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers or the major leagues, and it seems to be a tossup where he will go.
If he signs with the Kyojin, he would probably have to play center field and would join a starting lineup that already has too many left-handed batters.
He would be the fifth, along with Lee Seung Yeop, Michihiro Ogasawara, Yoshinobu Takahashi and Shinnosuke Abe, and opposing teams would have a distinct advantage when starting lefty pitchers against the Giants, despite the fact all these guys are great hitters.
Remember what happened when Chunichi manager Hiromitsu Ochiai threw southpaw Takashi Ogasawara against Yomiuri in Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series’ Stage 2?
The Giants lost and were eventually swept.
If Fukudome chooses the MLB route, there are several teams said to be interested in acquiring his services, with the most often mentioned club being the Chicago Cubs.
Kobayashi has been linked in discussion rumors with the Atlanta Braves but, if he stays home, he would most likely end up in the bullpen of one of the three Central League franchises in the Kanto area: the Giants, BayStars or Swallows.
It’s just about a sure bet Arai, the 2006 CL home run king, will be leaving Hiroshima for Hanshin, which can use someone at first or third base, the two positions Arai can play.
Andy Sheets, despite winning a Golden Glove as the best fielding first sacker in the CL in 2007, is not coming back. Sheets ended up playing mostly third base late in the season for the Tigers after Hanshin gave up on Makoto Imaoka, who led the CL with 147 RBIs in 2005 but has been injured and slumping the past two seasons.
Kuroda will probably be pitching in North America in 2008 for one of the big market teams: the Mets, Yankees, Mariners, Red Sox, Athletics, Dodgers, Rangers, Cubs, Angels, Padres or Phillies.
Meanwhile, Lenn Sakata is back as the Chiba Lotte Marines’ farm team manager; he served in that capacity in 1995 when Bobby Valentine took over as kantoku the first time.
What will happen with Marc Kroon, Alex Ramirez and Alex Cabrera?
Their contracts have expired, and all three could be leaving the teams for which they played in 2007. Closer Kroon’s negotiations with Yokohama have ended, as have talks between the Swallows and Rami, who had the best overall statistics (.343 average, 29 home runs, 122 RBIs) of any hitter in Japan this year.
The Seibu Lions may not be able to afford to keep Cabrera, either.
One paper hinted the Orix Buffaloes might try to get one of the Alexes — Ramirez or Cabrera — to accompany Tuffy Rhodes, Greg LaRocca and hopefully Kazuhiro Kiyohara in a power-packed lineup, keeping in mind Rhodes, as a 10-year man in Japan, does not count against the team’s foreign player quota.
As for new gaikokujin players, Japanese sports papers have reported the BayStars are talking to infielder J.J. Furmaniak, listed as a shortstop with the Oakland Athletics organization, who had major-league time with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
At least three right-handed pitchers have been trying out in fall camps of CL clubs. Eric Junge, formerly with Philadelphia and Cincinnati, was tested in the BayStars camp, while Andy Shivilo and Julio Manon got workouts from the Giants.
Shivilo played in Mexico this season; Manon has pitched in the big leagues with Montreal and Baltimore, and in Korea with the Kia Tigers.
The annual draft of college and industrial league players will take place in Tokyo on Monday, and we’re expecting announcement of the Central and Pacific League’s 2007 Most Valuable Players, Rookies of the Year and Best Nine post-season all-star teams on Tuesday at the Nippon Professional Baseball convention in Fukuoka.
The preliminary 2008 season schedules are due out next week, with the CL slate to be released on Nov. 26, the interleague calendar the following day, and the PL schedule later that week.
Feb. 1, the day all 12 Japanese teams begin spring training camps, will be here before you realize it, and we now know the World Series champion Boston Red Sox will be playing the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo on March 25-26, following exhibition games March 22-23, even before the cherry blossoms hit their peak.
Hey, wonder if I can get elected commissioner of the Hot Hibachi League?
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Finally this week, congratulations to Fumihiro “Fu-chan” Fujisawa, president of the Association of American Baseball Research (AABR) on the 30th anniversary of the group’s founding in Japan.
The AABR meets regularly in Tokyo for dinner, drinks and discussion of baseball topics and invites interesting guest speakers.
If you would like to know more about the association and its activities, call Fujisawa-san at (042) 395-0024 or e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com