|

Itoi trade not yet paying off for either Fighters or Buffaloes

by Jason Coskrey

The Orix Buffaloes hit their first home run of the year long before any games were played, or at least that was the common refrain.

Orix fleeced the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters before the season by sending pitcher Hiroshi Kisanuki and infielder Keiji Obiki north to Sapporo while getting All-Star outfielder Yoshio Itoi in return. The Buffaloes also acquired former Rookie of the Year pitcher Tomoya Yagi in the deal — but anything he provided was always merely going to be icing on the cake.

That Itoi was available after hitting .304 with nine home runs, 48 RBIs and 22 stolen bases for the Fighters in 2012, was a surprise in itself. Rumor had it the outfielder was making noise about being posted sooner rather than later, while the team had the opposite idea, a potential distraction that (if true, of course) could’ve been a factor in the Fighters’ move.

Whatever the reason, it was seen as a coup for the Buffaloes, who got a bona fide superstar talent they could pair with Tomotaka Sakaguchi in the outfield and insert into a lineup that already featured Lee Dae-ho and Aarom Baldiris.

The Fighters meanwhile were adding a solid right-hander in Kisanuki and a serviceable infielder in Obiki in exchange for Itoi, who may have become even more expendable with the continued rise of center fielder Daikan Yoh and the need to find a space for two-way rookie Shohei Otani to occupy in the field.

So who’s winning the year’s blockbuster trade? To this point, it’s not so easy to tell.

Through Sunday, neither team was above .500 on the season, with the fourth-place Fighters 39-40-1 and the cellar-dwelling Buffaloes 37-39-3.

On a smaller scale, the deal has also been fairly even.

Itoi is hitting .295 for Orix and leads the team with 21 doubles and 17 stolen bases and 40 walks. He also has eight homers and 33 RBIs. Yagi, however, was a disaster in his one appearance this year, allowing five runs in two innings of work.

Kisanuki has probably been a little better than advertised for Nippon Ham.

Despite a 6-5 record, Kisanuki has a team-best 2.90 ERA to go along with 63 strikeouts and a 1.18 WHIP. As for Obiki, he’s hit just .231 with one home run and 13 RBIs in 73 games.

The move made little sense for the Fighters at the time, and the results so far are driving the point home.

Nippon Ham jettisoned a popular player, who was among Japan’s elite outfielders, and one of the key components of last season’s run to the Pacific League title. Sure, Otani’s skills could very well surpass Itoi’s someday, that’s probably not happening this season.

Kisanuki has been a nice addition on the mound, but his success has come at the price of Itoi’s everyday production, which Obiki hasn’t come close to replicating in the field.

For Orix, finding a way to land a player of Itoi’s caliber was a no-brainer, but it worsened an already iffy situation on the mound behind Chihiro Kaneko and Yuki Nishi.

Slotting Kisanuki in behind that duo could’ve paid dividends for a Buffaloes team that was already strong offensively.

As it is, the team is having trouble preventing runs, something that has been a problem in Kobe.

It’s worth noting Orix could still reap some financial benefits by posting Itoi at some point down the road.

There is a lot of baseball left to be played this season, and who knows what future years hold.

The true results of this deal won’t be known until a few seasons down the road, but so far, NPB’s blockbuster deal has largely been a box-office bust.