Baseball / Japanese Baseball

MLB scouts keep tabs on young players at APBC

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

There were no elite players like Shohei Otani or Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, but the Asia Professional Baseball Championship served as a good showcase for MLB scouts to try and identify some up-and-coming, and possibly future MLB, talent.

In fact, one anonymous major league scout said it wasn’t just one or two players who caught his eye during the under-24 tournament.

The four-day event featured Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and ended with the Japanese beating the Koreans 7-0 in the final on Sunday.

The scout mentioned all of Japan’s starters at the tournament — Kazuki Yabuta, Kazuto Taguchi and Shota Imanaga — as guys who have a chance to play on North American soil.

He had an especially high opinion of Yabuta, a Hiroshima Carp right-hander who had a breakout 2017 season that saw him win 15 games (three losses).

“He hides his (throwing) arm in his delivery well, he’s got a good cutter and sinking pitch as well,” the scout said of Yabuta. “Without a doubt, he has the potential to go (to the majors).”

The scout also paid attention to Hanshin Tigers middle reliever Tsuyoshi Ishizaki. He thinks pitchers who have unorthodox deliveries in general have a chance to shine in the majors. He said Ishizaki, a side-armed righty, has a heavy 150-plus-kph fastball and could be a major league caliber reliever.

“The pitchers over there (in the United States) create angles on their pitches,” the scout said. “And it could be effective if someone who throws from different angles comes in right after those pitchers.

“For the hitters, they can’t really practice against such pitches, and I think it’ll make them miss at a higher percentage.”

Among Japan’s position players, the scouted mentioned Seiji Uebayashi of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Seibu Lions shortstop Sosuke Genda as players on his “watch list.”

“To me, he’s someone that has to go (to the majors),” he said of the 22-year-old Uebayashi, who played in 134 games and posted a .260 batting average, 13 homers and 51 RBIs for the Pacific League club in 2017. “When he makes contact with the ball with the core of his bat, it flies really far. He’s got great athletic ability.”

The scout also likes Uebayashi’s demeanor at the plate.

“He seems really settled at the plate,” he said of the versatile outfielder, who has a good combination of speed, power and arm strength.

As for Genda, the scout is attracted by the defensive game of the Seibu Lions’ rookie shortstop, who also hit .270 and had 37 stolen bases (second in the league) while playing in all 143 games.

The 24-year-old Genda made 21 defensive errors and finished runner-up behind SoftBank’s Kenta Imamiya for PL shortstop in the 2017 Golden Glove voting.

So Genda certainly has room to improve going forward, but the scout is high on his potential defensively.

In fact, the scout thinks Genda might be even better defensively than the Hiroshima Carp’s five-time Golden Glove winner Ryosuke Kikuchi, a second baseman widely regarded as one of the elite infielders in Japan.

“When you look solely at his defense, (major league teams) would use him,” the scout said. “He makes me think he’s even better than Kikuchi. Of course you have to have offense (to play in the majors).”

The scout added that if Genda played for a major league club and in a park with bigger dimensions, and he could hit the ball between the outfielders, his stock would rise.

“I’m looking forward to Genda’s development,” he said. “He’s got great range defensively. He’s got good instinct and positioning. He reacts well (to the ground balls). He reads how hitters (react), anticipating where the ball is coming to.”

Meanwhile, the scout also likes Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters left-handed hitter Kensuke Kondo’s bat-control skills. The concern is Kondo’s lack of an established spot in the field. Kondo is registered as a catcher, but has primarily been used as either an outfielder or a designated hitter for the Fighters.

Nevertheless, the scout likes the intangibles Kondo, who was hitting .413 through the first 57 games of the 2017 campaign before he was sidelined with a back injury for majority of the rest of the season, brings to the table.

He also said Kondo seems to have a positive, likable personality, something that would benefit him in making the transition to a completely new environment in a major league clubhouse.

He cited an example from Kondo’s teammate Yuji Iiyama’s final pro game early last month to describe the young player’s character.

“While there was a heavy mood on the bench as Iiyama was retiring and everybody else wasn’t sure how they should behave, Kondo was there with a friendly grin,” he said. “It was interesting to see because it made me think he’s got a personality and people like him. He’s obviously young, but he can behave like that even in a veteran player’s retirement game.”

The scout said he values the character of the players he observes.

“It’s as important (as baseball skills),” he said. “You know, there were cases in the past that some (were not) successful because of it, because they couldn’t get along (with their teammates). If someone doesn’t speak the (English) language well but can fit into the circumstance, making his teammates feel it’s fun to be around him, that’s a plus.”

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