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Toritani may have thrived in majors

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Two seasons ago, when it was thought Takashi Toritani was considering a move to MLB, many of the Pacific Rim scouts coming in and out of Japan were mostly lukewarm about his MLB prospects. They may had been fooled into thinking he was on a sharp decline by a decent, but un-Toritani-like year in 2011 and a slightly worse one in 2012.

It’s ironic then, in a way, that with Toritani having gotten better, or at least back to normal at the plate and in the field in the ensuing two years, that it was the Tigers stalwart who met the overtures of the Toronto Blue Jays, San Diego Padres and others with a tepid response this time around.

Toritani has decided not to pursue a job in the MLB, ending two months of silence with an announcement on Friday.

Whether Toritani favored the familiarity and security of Japan, the Tigers organization, which vowed to wait for him, in particular, or simply didn’t feel wanted by whatever the MLB clubs brought to the negotiating table, he’ll be back with the Tigers in 2015. He’ll be present and accounted for on Opening Day the way he has the previous 1,466 consecutive games, an ironman streak, the third-longest ever in Japan, that will continue to snake upward.

Hanshin fans are no doubt pleased (and it’s good for Japanese baseball to keep a star for once) but it’s really too bad we won’t get to see if Toritani could break the malaise gripping Japanese, Asian in general, middle infielders in MLB. Korean Kang Jung-ho, who was posted this year, with the Pittsburgh Pirates tendering the winning bid, will have to carry the banner for Asia this year.

Japanese infielders are often lauded for their adherence to fundamentals and the like, but success has rarely followed the few to make the move to the majors. It’s been pitchers and outfielders who by in large have made up the bulk of the players who have been able to find success in the majors.

Toritani may not have done any better, but it would’ve been interesting to watch him try. He’s such a good, smart player that he may have been able to surpass what Tadahito Iguchi accomplished, or top Kazuo Matsui’s moderate success, which never erased the disappointment of his initial flop with the New York Mets, or that of Akinori Iwamura, who was solid early but hit the wall hard later in his career in both MLB and upon returning to Japan.

The steady, sure-handed Toritani would’ve probably been better suited to second base in MLB but he had the tools and the mental makeup to make the transition work, theoretically at least. Offensively, his discipline may have enabled him to do more than just tread water in MLB.

Put it all together and Toritani might’ve been a solid player in the field and at least an adequate presence at the plate with a knack for drawing walks and getting on base. He might have rounded out into a very fine player on the next level.

Toritani now looks destined to be the only one of the four really great NPB shortstops from 2007-2011 to have never played in the majors.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka flamed out quickly, and on an epic level, and Hiroyuki Nakajima never dug his way out of the minors. Munenori Kawasaki was the only one to stick, but only by playing all over the place, spending at least part of 102 games at shortstop, 92 at second base and 20 at third base during his MLB career.

Toritani looked like he would finally take his turn after hitting .313 with 73 RBIs and an .821 on-base plus slugging percentage in addition to a Golden Glove, his third at shortstop, for Hanshin in 2014. He exercised his international free-agency option shortly after the Tigers were vanquished by the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the Japan Series.

Toritani may have been seeking more security than an MLB club was willing to offer a 33-year-old middle infielder who would be a first-time major leaguer at a spot that hasn’t been kind to many of the players who came before him. The Tigers meanwhile will reportedly come bearing a multi-year deal.

Perhaps Toritani also didn’t want to follow Kawasaki’s path.

The market was lukewarm for Kawasaki after the 2011 season, and shrank further with his declaration of only wanting to play in Seattle with Ichiro Suzuki, who as fate would have it would be traded to the New York Yankees during the 2012 season.

Kawasaki threw caution to the wind and accepted the minor-league deal thrown his way. He’s since gone on to play 239 MLB games across one season in Seattle and two more in Toronto.

Kawasaki jumped without a safety net — he’d have easily found work, but probably not at what the Hawks might have paid him — and it worked out.

For Toritani, Friday’s decision might be the end of his MLB aspirations. He’ll be 34 in June, and there aren’t too many regular MLB middle infielders in that age group. In 2014, Brian Roberts and Chase Utley, both 35, were the only players to appear in more than 52 games at second base. At shortstop, 35-year-old Jimmy Rollins appeared in 131 games in 2014, while Derek Jeter, 40, was in the field for 130. The next highest total by a shortstop in that age bracket was 27, by 35-year-old Clint Barmes.

It’s too bad, really, because it would’ve been interesting to see how Toritani would’ve fared. Toritani probably wasn’t destined for super stardom, but his overall consistency may have aided him in MLB, giving him an edge over the Japanese middle infielders who have fallen short before him.