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New faces should have opportunity to shine for Japan in WBC

by Jason Coskrey

Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki and Texas Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka were the lone major leaguers on the roster when Japan won the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

There were five MLB players on the team when Japan retained the title in 2009.

Japan will most likely see a regression in overseas talent when the team begins its quest to sit atop the baseball world for a third successive time at next year’s WBC.

Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish and Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma have already pulled out, and there are a host of others potentially in line to follow in their footsteps.

Japan manager Koji Yamamoto told Kyodo News his pitching staff will be “made in Japan.” There’s a pretty good chance the rest of the team will be as well.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

A Samurai Japan devoid of major leaguers is a very real possibility thanks to contract situations, the timing of the tournament, and other concerns.

Yamamoto has made a few coy public appeals, calling the major league players the final piece to the title-defense puzzle, but hopefully the former Hiroshima Carp manager is paying attention to what he has on the home front.

While the tournament has more often than not been met with a somewhat lukewarm response in the U.S., the WBC has been a boon for Japanese baseball. The event has provided NPB stars with an international stage on which to perform — against major league talent in many cases — and two titles have only helped raise Japan’s profile amongst casual observers abroad.

Also, at a time when Japanese players are migrating to the majors with increasing regularity, NPB needs domestic superstars, and there are few stages more suited for instant star-making than the WBC.

Without major leaguers taking up the pivotal roles, young stars such as Hayato Sakamoto, Hisayoshi Chono and Hirokazu Sawamura of the Yomiuri Giants, the Chunichi Dragons’ Yohei Oshima, and the Seibu Lions’ Shogo Akiyama, among others, could get the chance to make names for themselves on an international stage.

Competitively, the team would undoubtedly be better with Darvish, Iwakuma the Milwaukee Brewers’ Norichika Aoki and others bolstering the ranks, but the cupboard is hardly bare.

There are still a number of NPB players talented enough to not only fill out a roster, but give Japan a shot at a deep run in the tournament.

Sakamoto is a good hitter and capable shortstop, and teammate Shinnosuke Abe, health pending, is a fine catcher.

Either the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Nobuhiro Matsuda or the Giants’ Shuichi Murata can man the hot corner, while Yamamoto will have a few options at first, possibly including the Hawks’ versatile Seiichi Uchikawa.

Japan is deep in the outfield and can piece together a unit with the requisite speed, bat skills and defensive ability needed by calling on Chono, Oshima, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Yoshio Itoi for starters.

Someone will have to step up at second base if Hiroyuki Nakajima, currently plotting his first foray into MLB, can’t be talked into a second tour of duty, but veteran Dragons infielder Hirokazu Ibata is a candidate for the job, as is the Hawks’ Yuichi Honda.

Depth will be a concern in the pitching staff as well, but Yamamoto should have a mix of young arms, such as Sawamura and veterans like the Lions’ Hideaki Wakui and possibly the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Masahiro Tanaka, and Carp ace Kenta Maeda to choose from.

The important thing is, there are options.

Yamamoto will be able to look over some of his players during a pair of exhibitions and can spend the rest of the winter making overtures to Japan’s MLB stars.

Even if he fails in the latter, don’t expect the Japanese team to simply wither and die. The major leaguers may sit this one out, but an unsexy roster built on substance over style can go a long way.

Just like Japan did in 2006.