For Chihiro Kaneko, it starts now. The questions about his future and the maelstrom of media attention that will have grown to a fevered pitch by the time it’s time to face the issue.
Before, free agency questions could be neatly parried with a reminder that Kaneko had not fulfilled the requirements yet. Well, that ended Sunday, when the Orix Buffaloes righty qualified for domestic free agency.
Kaneko doesn’t have to commit to anything now, but he will at some point (to exercise the option or not), and many, especially Orix fans, will await his decision with baited breath. Though with the season ongoing, the soft-spoken pitcher probably won’t say much beyond the standard proclamations of being focused only on the present and so forth.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to acquire free agency right when I became a professional,” Kaneko told Sports Nippon on Sunday. “Because we’re still in the season right now, I’m not thinking about it.”
Masahiro Tanaka left a void at the top of the NPB pitching ranks when he left to join the Yankees, and both Kaneko and Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda have made strong cases to be considered Japan’s best pitcher. All eyes were on Maeda early, but Kaneko has shoved his way into the conversation.
Kaneko is 11-4 this year with a 1.78 ERA that’s the lowest in Japan, Maeda is second at 2.48. Kaneko ranks second in NPB with 171 strikeouts, and only the Hanshin Tigers’ Randy Messenger and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Takahiro Norimoto have worked more than the 146⅓ innings that Kaneko has logged.
Since the start of last season, Kaneko is 26-12 with a 1.92 ERA and 271 strikeouts in 369⅔ innings.
Orix, for its part, has already let Kaneko know the team wants him back, but he’ll likely have a few suitors to choose from.
Most notably, rumors have persisted that the Yomiuri Giants are interested. The Kyojin have the resources to make a serious run and the club’s history is full of All-Star players plucked from other NPB teams — a who’s who that includes Hiroki Kokubo, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Ramirez, Marc Kroon, and more recently Shuichi Murata, Toshiya Sugiuchi and Yasuyuki Kataoka among many others.
The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks also have deep pockets and it’s possible they and other NPB clubs are ready to throw their hats into the ring as soon as allowed to do so.
Then there’s the prospect of MLB teams possibly waiting in the wings to swoop down in the event of a possible posting.
Kaneko will have a major decision to make no matter what. He can commit to Orix, move along, or ask to be posted (though the Buffaloes don’t have to acquiesce). Or he can spin his wheels for another year, spend 2015 with the Buffaloes, and hold all the cards next fall, free to stay in Japan or move abroad.
One way or another, Kaneko’s future could be one of the major story lines around Japanese baseball going forward.