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Major league recruiters prepare for Asian invasion

by Jason Coskrey

LOS ANGELES — Daisuke Matsuzaka used the 2006 World Baseball Classic as a stepping stone to a career in the major leagues.

Three years later, there may be a lot of Asian players preparing to follow in his footsteps.

Whether or not Asian players are good enough to play in the MLB was a hot topic during the semifinal round of the 2009 WBC in Los Angeles. The play of finalists Japan and South Korea during the tournament has many thinking Asia could have a larger MLB presence in the coming years.

In the past only the cream of the crop among available Asian players could consider a move to the United States. But as the game has grown in the region, more and more players have shown they can make the move.

“Of course, it’s been obvious that the stars in Japan can come over and become stars in the United States in the big leagues,” U.S. manager Davey Johnson said. “So I think the level is, I would say, that their baseball program has grown. A lot more players that play in Japan now would come over and be stars in the United States.”

Choo Shin Soo, the lone major leaguer on the South Korea roster at the WBC, agreed that more Asian players are equipped to play in the majors.

“In terms of their styles, I would say there is a major difference,” the Cleveland Indians outfielder said. “Major league (baseball) is a more offensive style from the batting position, and always very active. But in comparison, in Korea and Japan, we are more patient at the plate, and we have basic skills. Perhaps we have better basic skills compared with major league players.”

Asian players have been the stars of this WBC led by South Korean slugger Kim Tae Kyun (batting .385 with three home runs and 11 RBIs) and Japan outfielder Norichika Aoki (.361 with seven RBIs).

Among pitchers with at least 10 innings South Korea’s Bong Jung Keun has a WBC-best 0.66 ERA with Japan’s Hisashi Iwakuma’s 0.73 the second lowest of the tournament.

Former MLB MVP Jimmy Rollins saw the quality of Asian pitching firsthand when the U.S. faced Japan on Sunday.

“All of their pitchers throw the kitchen sink at you,” Rollins said of the Japanese pitchers he faced. “You don’t go up there and look for one pitch. They have many ways to get you out and that’s a very good way to approach hitters.”

Johnson got a closeup view of Japanese baseball during his time playing for the Yomiuri Giants in 1975 and 1976.

“When I played in Japan, I played for a great manager, (Shigeo) Nagashima, alongside a great first baseman named Sadaharu Oh,” Johnson said.

“That’s a trivia question: Who was hitting behind the two greatest hitters when they broke Babe Ruth’s record? That was watashi wa,” he said, referring to his time batting behind Sadaharu Oh and former MLB great Hank Aaron, who each passed Ruth’s mark of 714 home runs.

The manager thought that some of his Giants teammates and many of that era’s other Japanese players had the talent to play in the majors.

“I thought back then, that was in the mid ’70s, I thought there were quite a few players that could come to the United States and be stars,” Johnson said. “I was kind of surprised that more players weren’t coming over to the United States, even back then.”

The U.S. manager says that while some of the other nations competing have been impressive, the play of Asian nations stands out.

“Fundamentally, I don’t think anybody plays the game as well or practices as hard as the Japanese do, and I’m seeing that now,” Johnson said.

“Whether it’s in Taiwan or whether it’s in Korea, the caliber of play, even I’ve been shocked in the teams that I didn’t even know that would play baseball, even in Europe, Russia, France, Spain.

“So baseball has grown. But nowhere to the extent, as far as I’m concerned, as Korea and Japan.”