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Prolific hitter Murton no lock for NPB return

by Wayne Graczyk

Will Matt Murton return for a fifth season with the Hanshin Tigers?

Or maybe move to another NPB team?

Or give the majors another try?

Reports indicate Murton was uncertain about where he will play next year as he left Japan for the U.S. on Oct. 22 following the expiration of his contract with Hanshin.

Given the history of foreign position players who found success in Japan and then attempted a comeback in the majors, it would seem trying to return to the big leagues may not be such a good idea. Most gaikokujin (and even the Japanese hitters, for that matter) who looked to put up the same or better numbers in the MLB wars after careers in Japan did not come close.

One foreign batter exception who comes to mind is Cecil Fielder. After hitting 38 home runs for Hanshin in 1989, Fielder played for the Detroit Tigers in 1990, hitting 51 homers in an All-Star year. He added 44 in 1991 and went on to play nine seasons in the American League after Japan.

Matt Stairs, Lee Stevens and Julio Franco also had decent post-Japan MLB time. Stairs spent half a season with the Chunichi Dragons in 1993, then went on to enjoy 17 years with 11 major league clubs. Stevens was with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1993-94 and later played six years as a regular in the big leagues.

Franco did OK in the majors between and after two stints in Japan with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995 and 1998, playing until 2007 at 48 years of age.

Many others, though, including some of the best, were not able to use success in Japan as a bridge for a return to the majors. Randy Bass, for example, after winning back-to-back Triple Crowns with Hanshin in 1985-86, tried out with the Baltimore Orioles after his time in Japanese baseball ended in 1988. He didn’t get past spring training.

Warren Cromartie was a 1984-90 star with the Yomiuri Giants and the Central League MVP in 1989 when he hit .378 to win the CL batting title. He went back to the majors with the Kansas City Royals in 1991 and hit .313 but appeared in just 69 games with only 148 at-bats and retired.

Leo Gomez, a slugger with the Chunichi Dragons from 1997 to 2000, thought he had a shot at making the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001 but found himself back in Nagoya later that year later he was cut during spring camp.

A .243 hitter in seven seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs prior to coming to Japan, Gomez compiled a .296 average with Chunichi and enjoyed a 31-home run season in 1997 and a 36-homer campaign in 1999.

Bob Horner, a 1978-86 star with the Atlanta Braves, set Japanese baseball on its ear in 1987 when he hit 31 homers and .327 in just 93 games with the Yakult Swallows. However, he turned down a multi-million dollar contract offer from the Central League club and opted to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals for a lot less money in 1988. There, he appeared in only 60 games, hit just three homers and retired at age 30.

Murton, at 32 and with four seasons in Japan under his belt, has a chance to join several other foreigners as a 10-year player here. That list includes former stars Boomer Wells, brothers Leron and Leon Lee, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera and the still-active Alex Ramirez.

All the above realized they had found their place in Japan and never thought they could go back to the majors and play nearly as well as they did for their Japanese teams.

Murton is coming off a productive season as Hanshin’s cleanup hitter, having batted a Central League fourth-best .314 with 19 homers and 85 RBIs. His four-year batting average with the Tigers is .312, compared with the .286 he had compiled over five MLB seasons with the Cubs, Oakland and Colorado, mostly as a part-time player. He led the Central League in hits in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com