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Kokubo gets started in Japan dugout with one eye on future

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Hiroki Kokubo got his feet wet as Samurai Japan manager by sweeping Taiwan in a three-game exhibition series between the two countries over the weekend.

Now the wait is on.

The tournament Kokubo was hired to win is still three years on the horizon and until then he’ll simply have to wait.

The first-time manager got his first few games in charge out of the way, and now he’ll glean what he can from the information amassed in Taipei. Information whose shelf-life will have long since expired the next time the national team comes together.

This is Japanese baseball’s grand experiment on the road to the World Baseball Classic, which it is on a mission to win for a third time in 2017.

To that end, the powers-that-be have injected a bit of soccer-styled management into its international baseball program in hopes of reaping success in a vastly changed landscape.

Instead of choosing a manager just before the WBC, a process that wasn’t without its issues in 2009 and 2013, Japan found someone who can grow into the job as opposed to adjusting to it on the fly.

The baseball system is also being overhauled, with the country’s various national teams being brought together under the same umbrella with Kokubo observing it all from his post at the top.

So Kokubo will learn about the players and they’ll get a feel for him. The former Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks star should also have an opportunity to forge deeper relationships than his predecessors Sadaharu Oh (2006 WBC manager), Tatsunori Hara (2009) or Koji Yamamoto (2013).

Japan is essentially asking its manager to monitor the present but live in the future.

Kokubo will need to keep his eyes on every young player in Japan (not just the professionals) because by the time 2017 rolls around, some of them will figure into his plans.

It was with a definite eye toward the future that Japan fielded a squad of players under the age of 26, most playing on the top team for the first time, including four who aren’t yet on a professional roster, in Taiwan.

Many of those players figure to wear the Hinomaru again as some of the stars of today are phased out due to age or decreased production.

Then there is Japan’s ever-increasing presence in MLB, with 2013 maybe setting a precedent with all of the nation’s major leaguers (those who were asked, at least) passing on a chance to play in the WBC.

While the timing of the 2013 tournament presented a few difficulties (with some players coming off their first MLB campaigns and others looking for jobs) it’s possible that trend continues, which would further deplete the ranks to a degree, especially among the best of the best.

That’s a challenge Alberto Zaccheroni doesn’t face with Japan’s soccer team, knowing that, barring injury, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa will be available for the biggest tournaments.

Kokubo also won’t have as many chances to assemble his team as Zaccheroni will, with not nearly as many international dates in baseball as there are in the soccer world.

So Kokubo will watch and learn, presumably floating in and out of professional and amateur games and practices trying to mine talent for games that are still years away.

Kokubo’s three wins over the weekend were nice, but for the next three years, the process will be more important than the results.