The 2009 season seems to be one where foreign players in Japanese baseball are getting a second — or third — chance to prove they can still produce.
So far, three Japanese teams have brought in imported players since the beginning of the year, and all have had previous experience in the Central or Pacific League. The recycled players are infielder-outfielder Jose Ortiz with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, third baseman Scott McClain with the Hiroshima Carp and first baseman Craig Brazell with the Hanshin Tigers.
Ortiz was fished out of Mexico by the Hawks and has been one of the leading hitters for Softbank since his return to Japan in late April and a big reason the Hawks are in first place in the ongoing interleague tournament.
A versatile defensive player, Ortiz can play first, second or third base and the outfield, and he hits for power and average. He first played in the Pacific League for the Orix BlueWave, a team that no longer exists, in 2003-04, and had a 33-home run season his first year.
After being released following the Orix merger with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Ortiz played independent league ball in North America in 2005-06. He got his second chance to play in the PL when the Chiba Lotte Marines brought him back during the 2007 season.
He also played for manager Bobby Valentine’s club in 2008 but was dismissed when the Marines’ foreign player salary budget was cut for 2009, and he wound up in the Mexican League until the call came from Fukuoka giving him a third crack at Japanese ball.
“I was so happy when I got the offer,” said Ortiz, the father of five and whose family loves living in Japan, whether it be Kobe, Chiba or Kyushu.
McClain played for the Seibu Lions from 2001 to 2003, hitting 39 homers his first year and playing in the 2002 Japan Series. That was before the Pa League put an expansion team in Sendai and the start of interleague play.
The Carp, with the best pitching staff in Japan, needed some power in the lineup, so they pulled McClain off the roster of the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A) Fresno Giants in early May.
Japan’s sports newspapers hinted early last month the Tigers were also looking to add some pop to their lineup and were considering Brazell, a 27-homer hitter with the 2008 Seibu Lions, or Julio Zuleta, a six-year Japan veteran with Daiei-Softbank and Lotte.
They decided on Brazell, who had been playing independent league ball in St. Paul, Minn., and made is debut with the Tigers on June 5 against Orix, hitting a game-winning two-run homer.
All the imported players say Japanese baseball takes the cake over anything but the majors. The level of play, life in Japan and the money are superior to the North American minors, independent leagues and baseball in Mexico, South Korea or Taiwan.
Eighteen gaikokujin playing here this season are working for their second or third team in NPB, with Orix Buffaloes infielder Jose Fernandez having been employed by four Pacific League clubs.
One guy with 10 years of experience in Asia, four in Korea and six in Japan, who could seemingly help a team such as the Seibu Lions or Rakuten Eagles, is Tyrone Woods. Asked what he is doing and would he be available, should a Japanese team give him a call, Woods wrote in an e-mail:
“I am just going to the gym, keeping in shape and surfing (the Internet) to keep up with what is going on in the Japan baseball world. It is good to see Scott McClain got another chance with Hiroshima.
“As for myself, I would be interested in returning to play in Japan and am open to all offers. I was told Hanshin was interested in me at one time. . .”
Woods played first base for the Yokohama BayStars in 2003-04 and the Chunichi Dragons from 2005-08. He turns 40 on Aug. 21, but I’ll bet he can still hit the ball out of sight. He won three Japan Central League home run titles, the last in 2006 when he belted 47 out of the park.
He has made it known, however, those offers to which he is open need to be substantial; he’s not going to play for peanuts or rice crackers after making $6 million a season with Chunichi.
Speaking of which, the Dragons have not really lost anything by dropping Woods in favor of his replacement, Tony Blanco. The Dominican newcomer has as much — if not more — power as Woods, and his salary is one-twentieth the money they paid “Mr. T.”
During the exhibition season in March, there were doubters, including this writer, who thought Blanco was nothing but a boom-or-bust hitter, with probably more bust than boom. One who might hit 20 homers but post an average of about .220 and strike out 200 times.
Through games of June 5, however, Blanco was leading the Central League with 15 homers, had 40 RBIs and was fourth in the league with a .310 average. Sure, Blanco leads the CL with 58 whiffs, but there has been more than enough boom to compensate for the bust.
Teams here have until June 30 to sign foreign players to contracts for the remainder of the 2009 season, and it would not be surprising to see another team bring back a guy who has played in Japan before.
We’ll see if any Japanese club gives Woods a call. Or maybe somebody will yet bring back Zuleta or another Japan veteran foreigner.
One thing is for sure, though; they are checking the recycle bin first before looking to bring in a newcomer with no experience in Japan.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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