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Iwakuma, Chen intriguing options for major league clubs


Staff Writer

Yu Darvish and Tsuyoshi Wada have been spoken for, but there are still two high-profile NPB pitchers looking to make the jump to the majors next season.

With the majority of the baseball world caught up in the hoopla surrounding Darvish’s posting, and the record $51.7 million fee the Texas Rangers doled out for his rights, there hasn’t been too much attention paid to Hisashi Iwakuma and Chen Wei-yin this winter.

Both probably expected to be in MLB last season, but had to stay in Japan a little longer. Now the duo, who also both dealt with injuries in 2011, are ready to make the jump for real this time.

Iwakuma will make the moveafter a near-brush with the majors following the 2010 season.

The right-hander was posted by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last year, but failed negotiations with the Oakland A’s, the highest bidder, meant he had to spend one more summer in Sendai.

Iwakuma got off to a good start, going 8⅓ innings to score an emotional Opening Day victory for a team and fan base still reeling from the earthquake and tsunami that battered the Tohoku region on March 11.

But later, he was hampered by shoulder problems and made just 17 starts, going 6-7 with a 2.42 ERA in 119 innings.

“Iwakuma can be very effective, if his shoulder is in fact healthy,” said an AL scout.

The shoulder cost him a few km on his fastball, but he approached his normal production toward the end of the year. Iwakuma also has a good slider to lean on and can keep the ball on the ground (42.7 career ground ball percentage).

“A doctor, or doctors, cleared him with a clean bill of health, but my eyes tell me differently,” the scout said. “Some team will pay a couple million to find out, and could be rewarded handsomely with broken bats and weak ground balls to the opposite side of the infield all season long.”

Chen is a bit of a mystery.

The Taiwanese lefty has been among the best pitchers in the Central League since 2009, when he posted the lowest ERA (1.54) in the CL since 1968.

At 26 years old, he’s still slightly unpolished, with his future potential a major selling point for some MLB observers.

“His ceiling looks lower than most thought just a few seasons ago, yet I’m hearing that 12 teams are interested,” said the MLB scout. “His control is excellent, but his command is not. Strikes at the letters over the fat part of the plate are going to travel much farther in the big leagues.”

Chen is 36-30, with one save, a 2.59 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in five seasons with the Chunichi Dragons.

He’s been helped to an extent by playing home games at pitcher-friendly Nagoya Dome where, since 2008, he’s 18-7 with a 1.97 ERA in 51 games versus 18-23, 2.84 in 64 outings everywhere else.

Chen made his first start of 2011 on May 6, after struggling with a left adductor injury in the spring. His performance suffered early in the season, but he regained most of his velocity and some command of his slider as the year progressed.

“Usually a team doesn’t have to pay what Chen and his agent may be asking for to find out if a 26-year-old can improve his command and stay healthy,” the scout said.

“The fact that he already bridged the gap between Taiwan and Japan very well works in his favor; he is diligent and driven. He could be a great guy to have in the pen.”