The 2011 season is going to be a crucial one for the Japanese players on major league — or minor league — rosters in the U.S.
For some, it could be the final chance to achieve stardom in the Big Show; for others it will be an effort to continue performing as age creeps up, and still others will be striving to avoid injuries that have held back their careers in the American and National Leagues.
Questions to be answered are the following:
• Can Ichiro Suzuki, at age 37, rack up an 11th consecutive 200-hit season and lead the Seattle Mariners to the postseason?
• Will Hideki Matsui, 36, play a full season with the Oakland Athletics despite those ailing knees?
• What will happen to pitcher Kei Igawa during the fifth and final season of his contract originally signed with the New York Yankees in 2007?
Can he finally make it to — and succeed in — the majors after four years of mostly wallowing at Triple-A Scranton?
• Can Hisanori Takahashi repeat his fine (10-6, .3.61 ERA) 2010 performance with the New York Mets?
He’s now with the Los Angeles Angels.
• What about Daisuke Matsuzaka?
Will he be able to avoid the problems of arm fatigue and “one-bad-inning sickness” and pitch for the Boston Red Sox as he did in 2007 when he won 15 and a World Series game, and 2008 when he turned in a record of 18-3?
• Will the Los Angeles Dodgers give right-hander Hiroki Kuroda more run support so he can improve on his 11-13, 3.39 statistics from last season?
• What will be the role of Baltimore Orioles hurler Koji Uehara?
Can he keep his job as the team’s closer — or return to the starting rotation — and will he be able to post some credible numbers for a team that has not had much success in recent years in that tough American League East Division?
• Can New York Mets fireballer Ryota Igarashi find his way after a tough up-and-down year between the majors and Triple-A?
In 2010, he was 1-1 with a hefty 7.12 ERA for New York.
• Will lefty reliever Hideki Okajima, non-tendered in December and then re-signed by the Red Sox in January, regain his confidence and return to the form that helped Boston to the playoffs in 2007-09?
• What about Kenshin Kawakami, the former Chunichi Dragons ace who has a record of 8-22 in two seasons with the Atlanta Braves?
He was outrighted by Atlanta to the Double-A Mississippi Braves in November.
What happens now?
• Can ex-Yokohama BayStars and Dodgers closer Takashi Saito keep it going with the Milwaukee Brewers at age 41?
On the hook will be Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. A solid .305 hitter who hit more than 30 home runs in a season twice in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons, Fukudome has only a .259 major league batting average and just 34 homers in his three years with the Cubbies.
Then there is the newcomer, what they will call a “rookie” in the MLB.
• How will the 2010 Pacific League batting champion and Japan Series winner Tsuyoshi Nishioka perform at Target Field?
Fan Carl Aegler, living in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, wrote to ask how his team’s new Japanese player compares with others who have moved from Japan to the major leagues.
“Twins fans in the great state of Minnesota are wondering what we are getting in Nishioka,” said Aegler in an e-mail. “Is he the reincarnation of Ichiro, or is he just a project for the major leagues? We need an infielder who can turn the double play and hit .300 out of the gate. What do you think?”
Carl, he’s no Ichiro but, then again, there is no Ichiro II.
You will be getting a switch-hitter with speed; one who can run the bases well. He should be able to hit .300 in the American League since he won a batting title last season in Japan with a .346 average.
He can play second base or shortstop and can deftly turn the DP from either position, but it is better if he plays second.
He led the PL in errors (19) last season while playing shortstop, but a lot of those miscues came on bad throws. I would expect he will have his confidence boosted by the fact he has been issued uniform No. 1 by the Twins.
One’s jersey numeral is psychologically important to the Japanese, believe it or not.
I look for him to fill a role similar to those performed by converted Japanese second sackers Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura during their World Series years with the Colorado Rockies and Tampa Bay Rays, respectively.
• Meanwhile, Nishioka’s former Chiba Lotte Marines teammate, closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi, did not get a major league offer and is staying in Japan to pitch for the Hanshin Tigers, so could it be the attraction of playing in the majors is beginning to taper off for some of the Japanese players?
Kobayashi could have accepted a minor league deal with a chance to realize the major league dream as Takahashi did last year with the Mets. Perhaps he feared that “dream” could turn into a nightmare as it has for Igawa and it did for former Lotte ace Hideki Irabu a decade ago.
Watching closely what happens to their countrymen in the U.S. this year will be Pacific League right-handers Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma. Darvish is expected to be posted for MLB service at the end of the 2011 season, while Iwakuma will be a free agent and not have to rely on a posting again after negotiations with Oakland fell through this time.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at wayne@JapanBall.com
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