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Trading four-time All-Star Itoi doesn’t make sense for Fighters

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

So why did the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters trade away arguably the best player on their team, if not in the entire Pacific League?

Is it because four-time All-Star outfielder Yoshio Itoi had been clearly unhappy with the direction of his offseason contract negotiations with the team — he was the lone Fighter to have not signed a new deal for 2013.

Or maybe Itoi’s desire to be posted rubbed Nippon Ham the wrong way. Having just lost Yu Darvish via the posting system last year, perhaps the team felt the potential gains wouldn’t be worth managing the distraction, dealing with an unhappy Itoi, or losing another star without a viable replacement.

So the Fighters can talk about trying to achieve balance with the deal made with the Orix Buffaloes Wednesday — Itoi and pitcher Tomoya Yagi heading to Kobe with pitcher Hiroshi Kisanuki, infielder Keiji Obiki and outfielder Shogo Akada coming back the other way — all they want, but it looks like the team just wanted to get rid of Itoi.

Maybe he had been stirring up trouble behind the scenes, prompting Nippon Ham to ship him off to an Orix team all too willing to dump a few junk bonds for some preferred stock.

It certainly doesn’t help on the field. The Fighters weakened their defense by dealing a player with a strong arm and covered a lot of ground in right field.

Itoi also knew how to wield a bat, putting up a career .302 average with 245 RBIs and a .391 on-base percentage to go along with 117 stolen bases in six seasons.

For that, the Fighters got back a pitcher with middling career numbers and two position players who might be serviceable, at best.

Atsushi Ugumori is the main candidate (some reports have tossed out rookie Shohei Otani’s name) to take over in right, but it’s hard to bet on him coming close to accounting for Itoi’s all-around production.

The team also risks a fan backlash by dealing a popular player so soon after the departures of Darvish and infielder Kensuke Tanaka to the U.S. during the last two offseasons.

As far as what the Fighters get in return, neither Obiki nor Akada figure to make much of an impact.

Then there’s Kisanuki.

The right-hander is 52-61 with a 3.79 ERA over a 10-year career with the Yomiuri Giants and the Buffaloes that has featured a series of seldom peaks and deep valleys.

Kisanuki was 10-7 with a 3.34 ERA over 25 starts in his rookie season in 2003 and didn’t notch an ERA below 3.95 again until 2007, when he was 12-9 with a 3.09 ERA. He followed that with three more not-so-good years (injuries limited him to one game in 2009) during which he put up ERAs of 4.14 in 2008, 3.98 in 2010 and 4.60 in 2011.

The Kisanuki roller-coaster ascended again last season, when he notched a career-best 2.60 ERA over 152⅓ innings. His dour 5-9 record was partly a by-product of the dismal state of the Buffaloes, as he left winless in eight games (four losses and four no decisions) during which he threw at least five innings while allowing no more than two runs.

Kisanuki has the potential to be a solid addition if he can remain somewhat close to his 2012 output and stays healthy. Pitching in Sapporo Dome — and with a good defense behind him for once — also works in his favor. Of some concern is the fact the snake-bitten Kisanuki has made more than 20 starts in a season only five times. He’s a combined 44-45 with a 3.59 ERA in those years.

He’s also never made double-digit appearances in four consecutive seasons.

After 70 appearances (328⅓ innings) from 2003-2005, Kisanuki was limited to three in 2006. He pitched in 40 games (222⅔) over the 2007 and 2008 seasons, then made just one appearance in 2009.

Kisanuki has pitched in 71 games (399) over the last three seasons, so all parties will head into 2013 with fingers crossed.

Orix meanwhile gets an above-average defensive player to pair with center fielder Tomotaka Sakaguchi in the outfield.

Itoi also hit .304, drove in 48 runs, stole 22 bases, recorded an .813 on-base plus slugging percentage, and was one of two players (Yomiuri outfielder Hisayoshi Chono was the other) with at least 20 stolen bases and a slugging percentage above .400 last season.

Itoi and Sakaguchi could both slot into either the first or third spot in a lineup that sorely needs a spark, with new addition Keiichi Hirano batting second, and power hitters Lee Dae Ho, Takahiro Okada and Aarom Baldiris laying in wait.

Orix also gets a reclamation project in Yagi, who has been mostly inconsistent since a solid rookie campaign in 2006.

Yagi has put everything together on a few occasions, but injuries and inconsistency have kept him from nailing down a permanent place in the rotation. He was 6-3 in his 13 appearances last season, notching a 3.38 ERA.

Still, Yagi has the potential to be the most impactful player in this deal — given the Buffaloes’ need for good pitching — but only if he manages to get his various issues ironed out. Maybe a change of scenery gets him on the right track.

If so, the Buffaloes will have made out like bandits in a deal in which they’re (posting issues aside) already the obvious winners.