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Fighters send All-Star Itoi to Buffaloes in five-player trade

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

This one even caught Yu Darvish off guard.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters sent All-Star outfielder Yoshio Itoi to the Orix Buffaloes as the centerpiece of a five-player deal both teams announced Wednesday.

“A trade involving Itoi, it can’t be,” Darvish tweeted Wednesday night.

Itoi and pitcher Tomoya Yagi are headed to the Buffaloes in exchange for pitcher Hiroshi Kisanuki, outfielder Shogo Akada and infielder Keiji Obiki.

“I feel very sad right now,” Itoi said in a statement. “But I understand this is apart of this (business).”

After being drafted in 2003 as a pitcher, Itoi began a conversion to the outfield in 2006 — while Darvish and Yagi, the 2006 Pacific League Rookie of the Year, were busy helping the Fighters capture the PL pennant and Japan Series title.

Itoi soon blossomed into one of NPB’s top outfielders, excelling in the field and at the plate, where he hit .302 with 55 home runs, 245 RBIs and 117 stolen bases in 610 games over six seasons.

Itoi hit .304 with nine homers, 48 RBIs and 22 stolen bases for Nippon Ham last season, but a difference of opinion with the team during contract negations left him as the only member of the Fighters yet to sign a new contract for the upcoming season.

The Nippon Ham star had also reportedly informed the team that he wanted to be posted in hopes of pursuing a career in the majors, with some Japanese media reports speculating a reunion with Darvish, currently preparing for his second season with the Texas Rangers, was a possibility.

Yagi’s effectiveness has been on the downturn since his rookie campaign, when he went 12-8 with a 2.48 ERA in 26 starts. He was 6-3 with a 3.38 ERA in 13 starts last season.

Itoi and Yagi are leaving the defending Pacific League champions to join an Orix team that finished last in the PL with a 55-77-10 record.

“Two players who helped us win the league last year, Yagi and Itoi are leaving,” said Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama in a statement. “I would be lying if I didn’t say I, like the fans, felt a little sad about it.”

The Fighters hope to have added depth to their rotation with Kisanuki, a 10-year veteran who is a career 52-61 with a 3.79 ERA.

The team is also banking on Obiki (a career .254 hitter with 19 home runs and 152 RBIs over six seasons) and 14-year veteran Akada (.254, 28, 198) to deepen the roster and help offset the losses of Itoi and second baseman Kensuke Tanaka, who recently signed a minor-league deal with the San Francisco Giants.

  • Masa Chekov

    What a steal by Orix.