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Maru, Kajitani on verge of NPB stardom

by Wayne Graczyk

As spring training camps for the 12 Japanese pro baseball teams opened on Saturday, let’s take a look at a couple of young players on the verge of becoming two of the best in the Central League; Hiroshima Carp outfielder Yoshihiro Maru and Yokohama BayStars infielder Takayuki Kajitani.

The 24-year-old Maru, a speedster playing center field, led the CL in 2013 with five triples and 29 stolen bases. He also belted 14 home runs and drove in 58 without the advantage of hitting among Hiroshima’s “cleanup trio,” the third, fourth and fifth batters.

Though he batted only .273, that average led Carp players with enough at-bats to qualify for listing among league leaders. Hiroshima manager Kenjiro Nomura last fall said there is no doubt Maru was a big reason why his team was able to finish in third place and appear for the first time in the CL Climax Series.

Marty Brown, the Carp skipper during Maru’s first two seasons (2008-09), said, “I knew he had the tools to eventually become a good player. I really liked him but did not get a chance to work with him much, because our team management wanted him to get a lot of seasoning on the farm team.”

Meanwhile, Kajitani emerged as a regular in the middle of the infield for Yokohama midway through the 2013 campaign and wound up playing 77 games, just a little more than half a season. Still, he hit 16 homers, drove in 44 and batted .346, an average that would have won him the Central circuit batting title, had he accumulated the minimum number of plate appearances to qualify.

Barring injury, the 25-year-old Kajitani should start every BayStars game at shortstop or second base during the coming season, and there is no reason why he should not put up impressive statistics again in 2014.

While both he and Maru wore uniform No. 63 last season, they have been assigned single-digit numbers this year, an indication their respective teams are expecting big things from them. Kajitani will wear No. 3 for Yokohama; Maru No. 9 on the Carp.

Pessimists have said Japanese baseball is doomed if its best players keep leaving for the major leagues. I have often countered that thought by pointing out, in order for the stars to keep leaving, they also must keep coming. Here come two of them right now. Keep your eyes on Maru and Kajitani as they mature and become full-fledged outstanding players in Japan this season.

Diamond Dust: Former Yomiuri Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton, 34, will be playing for the Korea Baseball Organization’s Kia Tigers this year. His Japan career ended when the Giants let him go after two seasons in Tokyo following four years with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. He thought another Japanese team might show interest, but there were no offers.

About playing in South Korea, Houlton says, “A job is a job, and luckily Korea pays decent enough to make the jump. I’m not really sure what happened with Yomiuri or even Japan for that matter, but I am happy to still be playing the game I love. I thought my record and numbers over six years spoke for themselves, but that’s baseball, especially in Japan.”

For sure. Houlton compiled a Japan career 63-39 won-loss mark with a 3.20 ERA, playing on four pennant winners. In 2011 while still with Fukuoka, he led the Pacific League with 19 victories and is one of only three American pitchers to win more than 18 games in a season in the history of Japanese baseball. The others were 1960s-era hurlers Joe Stanka and Gene Bacque.

In his two years with Yomiuri, Houlton was 21-12 with a 2.96 ERA, and I’ll bet, if he has a good season in Korea, he’ll be back in Japan in 2015.

The aforementioned former Carp and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles manager Marty Brown revealed in an email he will not be in uniform during the 2014 season and will be scouting for a major league club instead.

Brown wrote, “I have gotten off the field and have taken a job with the Washington Nationals as the Pacific Rim coordinator. It seems like the right fit for me, with my experience in Japan as a manager. I look forward to getting back to Japan to see everyone.”

After managing the Carp for four years (2006-09) and the Eagles for one (2010), Brown served for three years as skipper for the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate, working in Las Vegas and Buffalo.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com