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A plethora of familiar foreign players now on free-agent market

by Wayne Graczyk

The NPB last week posted the rosters for each of the 12 Central and Pacific League teams, indicating which players remain on the register for 2017 and those who have been released and are under jiyu keiyaku, or free contract status.

As usual, there were a few surprises. Among foreign players, Japan veterans Tony Blanco, Mauro Gomez and Hector Luna have been let go by their respective clubs. All three were among league leaders in various batting categories in recent years but, unless they get re-signed or picked up by another club, their careers here will have come to an end.

Blanco, still only 35, played eight years with three clubs, the Chunichi Dragons, Yokohama BayStars and Orix Buffaloes. He led the CL with 39 home runs and 110 RBIs his first season in Japan with Chunichi in 2009. As late as 2013, he had his best season, winning a batting title (.333) and another RBI crown (136) while with Yokohama.

His 41 homers that year would have gotten the Dominican star a Triple Crown, but Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien slammed 60 home runs. Plagued by injuries, a slump and playing for a team with six other foreign players, Blanco spent most of 2016 on the Orix Western League farm team, where he played in 48 games and batted just .239 with seven homers and 27 RBIs.

Infielder Luna, 36, was on his way to winning the Central League batting title in his first year with Chunichi in 2013. At the All-Star break, he was hitting .350, and the team reportedly signed him to a lucrative two-year contract to keep him from going to another NPB team — such as Yomiuri or Hanshin.

Then he pulled a hamstring and missed the second half of that season. With not enough plate appearances to qualify, the batting crown went out the window. He came back to play two full seasons in Nagoya, batting .317 in 2014 and .292 in 2015. The Dragons let him go after that, and he signed with Hiroshima.

In 2016, he was again plagued by various injuries and the first team four-foreign-player rule. The CL champion Carp used American pitchers Kris Johnson, Jay Jackson and Bradin Hagens and power hitter Brad Eldred so, even when he was healthy, Luna spent a lot of time on Hiroshima’s farm club.

He played in 67 varsity games, batting .272, and now he’s been released.

First baseman Gomez hit. 283 with 26 homers and led the Central circuit with 109 RBIs in 2014, his first season in Japan. He was given the nickname “Papi” by then-Hanshin teammate Matt Murton.

Gomez went on to play two more seasons with the Tigers but managed only 17 homers each year, did not come anywhere near 100 RBIs, his average went down to .255 in 2016, and the team slumped to a B-class finish in the league standings. At 32, Gomez may well attract attention from another team in Japan.

The Tigers have signed a replacement for Papi in ex-New York Mets player Eric Campbell, with a nickname even the Japanese fans will understand. “Soup.”

Meanwhile, two Americans who had been “on the fence” will be returning to their clubs in 2017. Chiba Lotte Marines right-hander Jason Standridge will pitch again for the Pacific League club, and Yomiuri Giants first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones has re-signed with the Tokyo team.

You may recall the Baseball Bullet-In column of Oct. 23 where it was pointed out Standridge’s wife, Joy, posted on Facebook her husband may have pitched his last game. But, he will be back for a 10th season in the Japanese baseball wars. He just turned 38 but —hey — if Hiroshima Carp first baseman Takahiro Arai can win an MVP award at age 39, there’s no telling what any player in his late 30s can do.

Jones will be playing his second season with the Kyojin after turning in respectable stats this past year. The eight-year major league veteran wound up the 2016 campaign with 24 homers, 68 RBIs and a batting average of .258, and it would appear the Giants were impressed by the hitting improvements and adjustments he made as the season progressed.

The Giants are also bringing back 2013 Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles hero Casey McGehee but, with Shinnosuke Abe playing first base and Shuichi Murata at third, they will need to find a position for him to play.

Among other foreign players so far not invited back for more play in Japan include Eagles relief pitcher Kam Mickolio, BayStars hurlers Guillermo Moscoso and Mike Zagurski, Chunichi infielder Anderson Hernandez and outfielder Ricardo Nanita and Yakult pitcher Kyle Davies.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters chucker Anthony Bass, a three-game winner in the 2016 Japan Series, is also on the free contract list and going to try a return to the majors.

One Japanese player trying to resurrect his career will be infielder Hiroyasu Tanaka. “Beavis,” as he is known among the foreign media, teammates and fans, has left the Swallows to join the BayStars. A 12-year veteran, Tanaka is still only 34. He was the regular second baseman for the Swallows and a productive hitter from 2007-2012 until an injury forced him out of action in 2013.

In a situation similar to the Wally Pipp-Lou Gehrig episode of 1925, Tanaka was replaced in the lineup by Tetsuto Yamada and could never get back his job, as Yamada went on to become one of Japan’s best players, winning a home run title, a league MVP award and posting consecutive “Triple 3” seasons.

Tanaka got his nickname from former Swallows teammate Aaron Guiel who said the Japanese player had a facial resemblance to the animated character on the former MTV show “Beavis and Butt-head.” Beavis will be reunited with Yokohama manager Alex Ramirez, as the two played together with Yakult.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com