The most overrated story of this year in Japanese baseball might have been that tug of war back in the spring between the Orix Buffaloes and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks over the rights to American pitcher Jeremy Powell.
You’ll recall it was reported Powell had signed contracts with both Pacific League teams and, after being front page news in Japanese sports papers for several days, the story took a turn when the Japanese baseball commissioner’s office tossed out the Pa League’s ruling which awarded Powell’s services to Softbank but threatened to suspend him for half the season unless the teams could reach a deal on compensation.
NPB negated both contracts and told the clubs to start over the negotiations with Powell, so he signed with the Hawks and did not serve any suspension time.
As it turned out, Fukuoka finished in last place, the Buffaloes made the playoffs, and J.P. had a lackluster season with Hawks, appearing in just 12 games, compiling a 2-6 record with a 5.29 ERA.
Softbank, with new manager Koji Akiyama, needs a face-lift, and it will be interesting to see what the Hawks will do in regard to foreign players in 2009.
Pitchers Rick Guttormson, C.J. Nitkowski, D.J. Houlton, Jason Standridge and Powell all had losing records, and first baseman/outfielder Michael Restovich was buried on the Fukuoka farm team most of the year.
Powell is now at home in the United States enjoying the Arizona sun and having fun with his kids, but his status on playing next year for Softbank or another team in Japan or the U.S. is uncertain.
In an e-mail, he wrote:
“At this time, I have no idea where I’ll be next year. I do know I have a lot of good pitching left in me, and I would definitely like to go back to Japan; it’s where I made my career blossom. I’ve grown to love pitching in Japan, and my family enjoys being over there for the summers.
“I will for sure be exploring the option of going back, but a lot of that will be out of my control here in the beginning, as teams must show some interest first. I am 100 percent healthy now,” said the eight-year Japan veteran who underwent knee surgery last year while still with the Yomiuri Giants.
Powell did not rule out a return to the major leagues where he pitched for the Montreal Expos from 1998 to 2000, but his first choice is a return to Japan where he has played for the Kintetsu and Orix Buffaloes, the Giants and Hawks.
“We’ll have to wait and see who, if any team, is interested in bringing me back for my ninth season over there,” he said, reminding us, “I’m only 32. He was born June 18, 1976, and knows how difficult it is for first-year foreign players to adapt to the style of yakyu played in Japan.
“I believe the (Japanese clubs) are much better off getting a foreigner who has been there and knows about the game over there; a player who already has the “wa,” he said, borrowing a phrase from a popular book on Japanese baseball by author Robert Whiting.
Another guy on the hook is Aaron Guiel, who played the last two seasons with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
The easy-going Canadian had a good first year with the Swallows in 2007 when he banged out 35 home runs (second-best total in the CL). He knocked in 79 runs for the last-place club and, although his batting average was only .245, he is capable of hitting a lot better.
Yakult released 2008 foreign players Danny Rios, Adam Riggs, Sean Douglass, Dicky Gonzalez and Wilson Valdez, and Guiel’s status is apparently on hold while the team figures out what it wants to do.
Aaron was also injured this past season (bone chips in his throwing elbow) and managed to hit only .200 with 11 homers and 35 RBIs, but he’s OK now and, like Powell, one of his selling points is the fact he is already acclimated to Japan.
Guiel e-mailed the following comments:
“Although this year did not go the way I would have liked, I want to be back for another year or two in Japan. I am healthy again and look forward to having a good year next year.
“If Yakult chooses not to re-sign me, I want other teams to be aware of me. Money will not be a hurdle in dealing with me. The Swallows paid me well last year, and I feel I have to play my way back to respectability again.
“The Swallows haven’t released me, so I am not a free agent yet. I think they want me back only if they cannot find a player to replace me.”
Hopefully, the Hawks will see fit to bring Powell back to Fukuoka for one more shot, and the Swallows will invite Guiel to work for another season. If not, other Pacific or Central League clubs would be wise to keep them in mind.
Another team which will apparently “clean house” concerning non-Japanese players is the Yokohama BayStars, who employed six Americans in 2008.
Officially released are pitchers Matt White, Travis Hughes and Dave Williams. Position players Larry Bigbie and J.J. Furmaniak and pitcher Mike Wood were also sent home prior to the end of the season.
In a trend of recent years, the Hawks, Swallows, BayStars and other teams looking to hire new (to them) foreigners are expected to do more recycling, picking up guys discarded by other Japanese teams.
A total of 20 non-Japanese players were working for their second or third team in Japan in 2008, and it will be interesting to see how many recyclees will be on the CL and PL rosters in 2009.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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