A year of speculation was brought to a sudden end on Friday when superstar slugger Hideki Matsui announced he was ending his 10-year career with the Yomiuri Giants and heading to the major leagues in search of a bigger challenge.

Matsui’s exit from Japan’s most storied pro baseball franchise generated massive news coverage throughout the day. His impending signing with an MLB club will no doubt raise his profile even higher here — which is almost hard to believe.

With a deal for Matsui reportedly already in the works with the New York Yankees — America’s most famous sports team — interest in the MLB in Japan will skyrocket to even greater heights.

Earlier this season, in anticipation of Matsui’s departure, in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, international scout Ray Poitevint gave his analysis of Matsui’s prospects for success in the majors.

“I think Matsui is one of a kind. If it was a toss up on an everyday basis, and you were building a ball club, if you had a choice between Ichiro and Matsui, you would probably start with Matsui.”

Poitevint, who has headed the international scouting operations of three major-league teams (Boston Red Sox, Anaheim Angels, Milwaukee Brewers) in his career, is currently the executive director of the International Scouting Bureau located in Glendale, Calif.

His organization services all 30 major-league teams and specializes in the Asian market. In his 45-year scouting career Poitevint has signed more than 200 players who have made it to the majors.

“Matsui can do everything good enough, plus get the ball out of the ballpark more often (than Ichiro). He is more of an RBI threat, which is the hardest thing to find in baseball. An RBI man has a different type of makeup inside. When he’s hitting, he’s aggressive, he’s attacking.

“Most Japanese hitters just want to touch the ball. Matsui wants to drive the ball out of the park and expects to.”

Poitevint, who sees approximately 75 Japan pro games a year in person, says Matsui’s ability to hit for power (he had 332 home runs during his career with Yomiuri) is significant even when comparing him to a player of the caliber of Ichiro.

“Ichiro feels he is going to excel at whatever he is doing. It’s just that Matsui has more force behind everything. If Ichiro was hitting third or fifth, then he would have a better chance for RBIs, but he still wouldn’t catch Matsui.

“Who is going to hit for the better average? Ichiro probably runs better. In the majors he has just touched the ball. In Japan, I never saw him play that way. I always saw him as a threat to drive the ball. Get a couple of doubles and triples and hit the ball out.

“Matsui would not come to the States and copy that style. He would come and use his one mode — attack.”

Poitevint is very impressed by what he has seen of Matsui over the years.

“I think Matsui is Mr. Baseball in Japan. It is going to take a small fortune, and it may not end up being money that decides it. Matsui is in a class by himself. The clubs that are most aggressive will go after him.”

Poitevint isn’t worried about Matsui facing off against stronger pitchers in the majors.

“He will be a star in the majors. He will do the same thing in the States he did in Japan. He has a good swing for the major leagues. He will swing and miss less in the States than he did in Japan.

“We may have more power on the velocity of our pitches, but he wears those guys out. He can play center field too. The Yankees would love to have a left-handed hitter in their ballpark like him.”

Poitevint doesn’t think Yankees owner George Steinbrenner will be gun shy about plunging into the Matsui sweepstakes — even after getting burned by signing Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu in 1997.

“With Irabu there was not much research. Matsui has been researched for the last five years, so there is nothing people don’t know about him. They probably know what time he goes to bed.

“Irabu and Matsui are two completely different types of personalities. It is not a good comparison, because one is a pitcher and the other is a position player.”

When it comes down to the bottom line, Poitevint says Matsui will likely earn more salary than Ichiro did when he signed a three-year deal for just over $14 million with the Mariners two years ago.

“I think Matsui is worth everything that Ichiro got. There are half a dozen aggressive clubs. The salary will depend upon the organization. Some will be willing to sign him and not care about what he makes bothering the other players.

“Other organizations might want to respect the rest of their ballplayers when it comes to salary considerations.”

Just how much will the team that lands Matsui have to pony up?

“Somebody is going to have to come up with a four or five-year contract. They are going to have to guarantee a lot of millions. At five years you are talking at least in the neighborhood of $6 million a year.”

At the end of the day, Poitevint knows Matsui is more interested in playing the game at the highest possible level and is less concerned about salary. Poitevint is confident Matsui has the heart to make it big in the majors.

“Matsui is a challenging type of guy. He has been that way since high school.”

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