MLB scouts cast eye over Samurai Japan stars at Premier 12


Staff Writer

Just like the World Baseball Classic, the Premier 12 served as a stage for major league scouts to get the measure of players.

Many were seen in their seats holding their radar guns behind the home plate at games in Taiwan and Japan.

“The Premier 12 is a great way to see all the players in one spot,” said one scout. “It makes it very efficient for us.”

And Team Japan, which is loaded with MLB-caliber talent, was one of the teams that drew the most attention.

Among the baseball samurai, pitchers Kenta Maeda and Shohei Otani were perhaps — as expected — the top two guys all the scouts wanted to see.

Neither Maeda nor Otani disappointed. The two right-handers showcased their potential during the inaugural world championship.

Another major league scout said that he really liked Maeda’s consistency, which would always give his team a chance to win ballgames.

“Maeda is always Maeda,” he said during the pitcher’s outing in the quarterfinal against Puerto Rico at Taoyuan International Stadium on Monday. “He’s always the same.”

He said that he saw Maeda, who might go to the majors as early as this offseason, in person last year and this year. He added that Maeda is probably below some Japanese star hurlers that have already signed with big-league clubs like Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers.

“Maeda should be able to be a back-of-the-rotation starter,” he said.

But the scouts’ favorite was clearly Otani, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham hurler who has a 160-kph fastball and a devastating forkball.

The second scout said that Otani, still only 21, doesn’t need a few more years to develop before he can play in the majors, and could be a star attraction today.

“Shohei Otani is outstanding,” he said. “He has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter in the major leagues right now. He would be an elite major leaguer right now.”

The scout added that he doesn’t see any issues with Otani, who won 15 games with a 2.24 ERA for the Pacific League club in 2015.

“I didn’t see anything with Otani,” he said. “He is a good example of a guy that throws hard enough to where he doesn’t have to be that fine with his fastball location and can get away with mistakes over the plate.”

There were some new findings for the scouts during this tournament as well.

Takahiro Norimoto is usually a starting pitcher for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. But Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo used the right-handed pitcher as a reliable middle reliever who pitched an inning or two in every game.

Because he didn’t have to think about his stamina, Norimoto constantly hit 155 kph or more with his fastball (he even hit 158 in one game), and looked exceptionally effective in the team’s run to the final four (although he took a loss against South Korea in their semifinal game on Thursday in Tokyo).

Asked if Norimoto could be more suitable as a reliever than as a starter in the bigs, the first scout quickly responded, “Yup.”

“He’s probably better in that role,” he said.

Despite the fact that Japanese position players haven’t had much success on American soil in recent years, the scouts didn’t neglect the Samurai Japan hitters, either.

The two aforementioned scouts said that they liked what Sho Nakata and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo did in this Premier 12.

“Both guys have big bodies,” the first scout said. “Tsutsugo can hit for the power and do situational hitting, too. I like Nakata, too. He swings really hard. He swings like the Americans do.”

Hayato Sakamoto drew some attention when he played for Japan in the 2013 WBC. The Yomiuri Giants shortstop hasn’t been so productive in NPB since then, but he was still a player that the MLB scouts were paying attention to.

“Sakamoto has been impressive,” the second scout said during the first round in Taiwan. “He’s a good defender and has been swinging the bat well.”

Nobuhiro Matsuda, who has become an international free agent this offseason, is another player that could end up in a major league team jersey next year.

While there are doubts about Matsuda, particularly about his infield defensive skills, the second scout thought the Fukuoka Softbank Hawk could be good enough to play in the majors.

“Matsuda is a good player and I think he is more of a platoon player in the majors,” he said.

Yet there’s one thing that concerned the scouts about the Japanese hitters: their high leg kicks.

“There are always some questions about what swings will translate and have success in the major leagues,” the second scout said. “Sakamoto and some others have a big leg kick as part of their swing. It’s not to say that it won’t work against American pitching, but there’s always a little uncertainty.”