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Free agency likely to make negative impact on Hawks

by Wayne Graczyk

They call the baseball off-season the “Hot Stove League” but, this winter, it might be called the “Overheated Stove” or the “Microwave League.” As predicted in this column a few weeks ago, the flurry of activity in December would be fast and furious, especially because of the delayed end to the Japan pro ball season and a more compact period of time in which to get deals done.

Player transactions including trades, team changes by free agents and Japanese players being posted for major league service happen each year, but this time we also have the evolution of the new Yokohama DeNA BayStars team and the unexpected turmoil in the front office of the Yomiuri Giants.

There was a strange series of events regarding the appointment of a manager for the BayStars. The Chunichi Sports paper reported at least three individuals turned down the job: former Yakult Swallows catcher and manager Atsuya Furuta, ex-BayStars and Seattle Mariners closer Kazuhiro “Daimajin” Sasaki and one-time Yomiuri Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Masumi Kuwata.

Now it is former Yomiuri player and current NTV commentator Kiyoshi Nakahata, who was named skipper on Friday, and we will have more about him and his flamboyant personality in a column later this month.

It appeared Kimiyasu Kudo was about to be introduced as the DeNA skipper, but he was suddenly ruled out on Monday. The 48-year-old former Seibu Lions, Daiei Hawks, Yomiuri and Yokohama pitcher was dropped from consideration, supposedly because he and the team could not agree on policy for naming a coaching staff and selecting players, according to Japanese sports newspapers.

However, there could be two other reasons the team decided to pass on Kudo. He probably still wanted to remain active as a player (he officially retired on Friday), and they thought he might be able to coax Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks free agent left-hander Toshiya Sugiuchi into signing with the BayStars.

The team needs a manager who will focus all his attention on running the club — not trying to get himself into the starting rotation, at an age close to 50 no less. As for Sugiuchi, he was moving closer to signing with the Giants, and the faint possibility of him joining the BayStars was becoming more remote.

The Japan Series champion Hawks, by the way, may be about to take a huge hit in their talent pool with three starting pitchers and their shortstop looking to go elsewhere. Left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, an international free agent, is heading for the major leagues, and Sugiuchi, a domestic free agent, for the Central League.

The rumors are hot and heavy 19-game winner D.J. Houlton will also jump to the Giants, and that would mean three guys from the Hawks rotation who combined for 43 victories in 2011 would have to be replaced in Fukuoka.

If the Seattle Mariners will take him, leadoff man Munenori Kawasaki, like Wada an international free agent, will pursue his dream of playing with Ichiro Suzuki. If the shortstop joins the Mariners, that would spice up the American League openers in Tokyo with Seattle playing the Oakland Athletics March 28-29.

There is also a possibility other Japanese players, such as Wada or Rakuten pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, might sign with the M’s or the A’s, and that would make the MLB Japan openers all that more attractive for the home crowd fans. Hopefully, Hideki Matsui will remain with Oakland, but the series would sell out with just Ichiro as the only Japanese participant.

Other rumblings from the rumor mill say relief pitcher Micheal Nakamura may follow slugger Terrmel Sledge and return to Sapporo and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Both played on pennant-winning teams there; Micheal in 2006-07 and “Hammer” in 2009.

Once the Fighters ace closer, Nakamura has been wallowing mostly on the Yomiuri farm team the past three seasons while Sledge, one of the game’s best clutch hitters, worked for the Yokohama BayStars in 2010-11 and agreed on Dec. 7 to rejoin the Fighters for the 2012 season.

Besides Nakamura, the Giants released several other players, including veteran outfielder Saburo Omura, obtained this past mid-season from the Chiba Lotte Marines. Word is Saburo will return to Chiba where he was one of that team’s most popular players.

Finally this week, is it the end of an era? Unless the DeNA BayStars hire a foreign coach, there will apparently be no non-Japanese on the brain trust staffs of the 12 Central and Pacific League teams for the first time since 1993.

Boomer Wells served as a batting coach with the Orix BlueWave in 1994, followed by Bobby Valentine’s first term as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995. Lenn Sakata, the Marines farm team skipper under Valentine, stayed on through 1998, and Roger Hansen was an Orix coach from 1999 to 2001.

Tom O’Malley was a batting coach with the Hanshin Tigers in ’02, and Trey Hillman came along a year later to manage the Nippon Ham Fighters, joined by Leon Lee as manager of the BlueWave. There followed a slew of managers with the return of Valentine, Marty Brown, Terry Collins and their American coaches. In 2007, there were nine foreign managers and coaches on the 12 CL and PL rosters.

In 2011, Yomiuri Giants strength and conditioning coach John Turney was the last, and now he will take off his uniform to join the Giants international department. Turney, a British-Japanese, put the Yokohama BayStars through their exercises from 2001-09 and did the same for the Yomiuri players the past two seasons.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com