The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles may be losing their best pitcher, but the posting money the Pacific League club may receive from the Oakland Athletics for the rights to negotiate with ace right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma would give them a lot of pocket money to spend on available free agents set to leave other Japanese teams or those ready to return home from North America.
The deal is contingent upon Iwakuma reaching terms on a contract with the A’s. If he doesn’t, his rights revert to Rakuten and no money changes hands.
The Eagles have already acquired former Tokyo Yakult Swallows and major league infielder Akinori Iwamura and, if they like, the Eagles can go after more such talent with the estimated $16 million-$18 million bank transfer from California.
Rakuten could also afford to pay a couple of decent foreign players to beef up its talent pool and, when the dust clears, new manager Senichi Hoshino is expected to have a much better roster than the team had in 2009.
Possible returnees from the majors besides Iwamura include former Chunichi Dragons ace pitcher Kenshin Kawakami (recently waived and sent to Double-A by the Atlanta Braves) and infielder Kazuo Matsui who apparently ran out of gas in the National League after stints with the New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Houston Astros.
Meanwhile, Japanese sports papers are speculating Hideki Matsui may go to the Chicago White Sox or Oakland and join Iwakuma as an A’s teammate and, if Kawakami decides to return home, the papers are suggesting he might look to pitch for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.
However, if Rakuten has interest, the Eagles would at least have some cash to make an offer for any of the above.
The Sendai-based club could also look to Seiichi Uchikawa, who filed for free agency after eight seasons with the Yokohama BayStars. The point is, while the Eagles will have a hole in their pitching rotation, it would not be difficult to fill that void and have cash left over to improve the team dramatically and further excite the Tohoku fans.
It will be interesting to see how Hoshino will use Iwamura, who underwent a huge image change after leaving the Swallows for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2007. With Yakult, Iwamura was a slugger; a third baseman who hit in the heart of the team’s batting order and still holds the franchise single-season home run record, having hit 44 in 2004.
With Tampa — and later with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the A’s — he was a small middle infielder, playing second base, hitting further down in the lineup, and the most homers he hit in a season in the majors was seven, in his first year there.
It looks like Iwamura will be issued uniform No. 1 with the Eagles, and it is said Hoshino will be looking to him to provide team leadership as well as productive statistics. Most likely, Iwamura won’t be the last free agent signed by Rakuten this offseason.
There would still be a lot of budget to use, and the Chunichi Sports said in its Wednesday edition one of the priorities of the Eagles is to solve their closer problem. According to the paper, Rakuten is interested in a couple of right-handed relievers with championship game experience.
Former Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins submariner Kim Byung Hyun was tested last week at the Eagles’ Kleenex Stadium in Sendai. He threw for the D-Backs in the 2001 World Series against the New York Yankees.
The Chunichi gazette also says ex-Yokohama BayStars and Yomiuri Giants closer Marc Kroon is being considered. Kroon saw action in the Japan Series in 2008 and 2009 but was released by the Giants on Monday. He has said all along he wants to play at least one more season in Japan and surpass the total of 200 career saves.
Marc has 177 in six seasons in the Central League and could easily achieve 23 more if he can hook on with another Japanese club and stay healthy. Kroon has also indicated, however, he does not have much interest in pitching in the Pacific League and would prefer to stay in the Kanto area.
But, might he change his mind if he gets a good offer to play in Tohoku?
Besides releasing Kroon, Yomiuri has also dropped infielders Edgar Gonzalez and Lee Seung Yeop, and two other Giants relievers are leaving the club as well: Kiyoshi Toyoda became a free agent and is going to the Hiroshima Carp, while Masahide Kobayashi, the former Chiba Lotte Marines and Cleveland Indians stopper, appears headed to the Orix Buffaloes.
Also given tryouts this past week by the Marines were two pitchers: ex-Seibu Lions (2009) right-hander Jonah Bayliss and ex-Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles righty Bob McCrory.
Lotte has decided not to renew the contracts of pitcher Bryan Corey and outfielder Juan Carlos Muniz, the Cuban who won the 2009 Eastern League batting title but never made it with the Chiba varsity this past season.
The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who had no foreign position players in 2010, have signed first baseman Micah Hoffpauir, late of the Chicago Cubs.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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