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Busy offseason ahead for NPB, players

by Wayne Graczyk

Every year when I renew acquaintances with returning foreign players — whether it be at spring training camp in Okinawa or Miyazaki, an exhibition game or an early regular-season game -I ask them as an ice-breaker, “How was your winter?” The answer I get most often is “short.”

They might have been playing here until deep into the previous October and had to report for spring camp in the Ryukyus or south Kyushu before the end of January for formal workouts beginning Feb. 1. While playing in North America, they were used to going home at the end of September if not involved in postseason play, then not having to even think about picking up a ball again until Feb. 10 or so.

This year, because the Japanese pro baseball schedule was set back after the events of March 11 and the aftermath, the offseason is going to be especially brief, fast and busy. Even as the Central and Pacific League Climax Series and 2011 Japan Series are ongoing, thoughts of 2012 will be going through the minds of most everyone connected with baseball here.

Japan’s annual draft of amateur players takes place on Thursday and the preliminary 2012 NPB schedule will be released soon as well.

Then we have the impending sale of the Yokohama BayStars, the possible posting or free agency of players such as Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters, Tsuyoshi Wada of the Softbank Hawks, Chen Wei-Yin of the Chunichi Dragons and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Rakuten Eagles.

Also on the agenda will be preparations for the Seattle Mariners-Oakland Athletics American League openers in Tokyo on March 28-29, 2012, and the continuing talks to determine whether Japan will or will not participate in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Then you have the usual coming and going of foreign players, and one guy probably coming to the Japanese leagues, according to various sports paper reports, is Chicago Cubs farmhand Brian LaHair who had a tremendous season at Triple-A Iowa in 2011. First baseman LaHair belted 38 home runs, hit .331 and drove in 109 in 129 games before being called up to the Cubs on Sept. 4.

Wow, great stats, and you have to wonder why he is not being moved up to the National League.

It was from that farm club by the way, the Nippon Ham Fighters acquired second baseman Bobby Scales in July. Scales hit .304 in Des Moines before his contract was sold to Hokkaido. He did an excellent job for the Fighters and will be a valuable team member in the Climax Series.

There is also a rumor Edgar Gonzalez may be returning to Japan. Edgar spent the 2010 season playing second base and first base with the Yomiuri Giants, hitting .263 with 12 home runs and 44 RBIs in 100 games. This season, he was with the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, where he batted .315 with 14 homers and 82 RBIs in 137 games.

We will do our best to keep you up to date on everything that will be happening as the fast-approaching winter shoots by.

Diamond Dust: A former Rakuten player, Todd Linden, was named Most Valuable Player in the independent North American League for 2011. Playing for the Edmonton Capitals, Linden batted .355 with 14 homers and 79 RBIs to earn the MVP recognition.

Linden played in Sendai in 2009-10 and may be remembered for criticizing then-manager Katsuya Nomura two years ago toward the end of the season. He was removed from the first-team roster and later realized, if he wanted to be reinstated on the varsity, he needed to apologize to Nomura.

At an appointed time, Linden showed up wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, whereby the manager refused to see him and accept his “gomen nasai.” Given another chance, the player later appeared wearing a suit, necktie and dress shoes. This time, he was forgiven and allowed to re-join the club.

The incident received a good amount of publicity in the Japanese press, and Linden joked off the criticism about his attire the first time he went to see Nomura by saying, “At least it was my best T-shirt.”

Congratulations to Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher D.J. Houlton on his 2011 season performance. The right-hander scored yet another victory over the Orix Buffaloes at Kyocera Osaka Dome on Oct. 18, improving his record to 19-6 and lowering his ERA to 2.19, the fifth best in the Pacific League. He also tied Rakuten Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka for the most wins in Japanese baseball.

The significance of this accomplishment is big, considering Houlton is only the third foreign pitcher in Japanese baseball’s two-league era (since 1950) to register 18 or more wins in a season. The others are Gene Bacque who won 29 games in 1964 and 18 in 1967 for the Hanshin Tigers, and Joe Stanka who chalked up 26 victories in 1964 for the Nankai Hawks.

Foreigners have won the Central or Pacific League hurler derby, including Kip Gross (twice), Balvino Galvez, Melvin Bunch, Kevin Hodges, Jeremy Powell and Seth Greisinger (twice), but none won more than 17 games in a single season.

Since he plays for the Pa League champion Hawks, who had far and away the best record in Japanese baseball this year, it will be most interesting to see where Houlton finishes in the voting for league MVP.

There will be no column next week, as we take a break for the fifth Sunday of the month. See you again on Nov. 6.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com