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Infielder Murata still searching for new home

by Jason Coskrey

One of the curious things about the current Hot Stove season in Japan has been Shuichi Murata’s inability to find a job for 2018.

Shortly after the 2017 season, Murata was, somewhat surprisingly, cut loose by the Yomiuri Giants, with whom he’d spent the past six seasons and won three pennants and a Japan Series. At the time, it looked like the veteran third baseman might catch on with another club. But one-by-one, teams have shied away from the infielder, who turned 37 on Thursday.

So the veteran has been left twisting in the wind with no offers yet.

Murata reiterated his hope to be playing next season during a recent appearance at a hospital. He doesn’t seem to want to try his hand overseas or in the independent leagues, holding out hope his phone will ring and an NPB club will be on the other end.

“I have to move forward, and at the same time, I have to do my best,” Murata was quoted as saying by Sankei Sports. “I’ve been thinking if I returned, it would be for an NPB team.”

Murata hit .262 with 14 home runs in 2017. He ended the year with a .331 on base percentage and .423 slugging percentage, while also posting a .334 weighted on-base average (wOBA), per Deltagraphs. His numbers were a definite drop-off from a resurgent 2016 that saw him slash .302/.354/.505 with 25 home runs. Other than a dip in home runs, his 2017 compared mostly favorably to his last five seasons.

Even so, as far as a starting job, Murata doesn’t have many options. The Chiba Lotte Marines may be going with youth, and the market seems dry for a corner infielder who isn’t hitting for a ton of power or a particularly high average. That and the Orix Buffaloes seem to be OK with Eiichi Koyano, who hit .275 with three home runs in 2017, being among their hot corner options.

It’s still a little surprising, however, that Murata can’t latch on as a second option at either first or third somewhere. His bat still has some life and he can still field the position. A role coming off the bench, not unlike 40-year-old Takahiro Arai (albeit a better hitter) with the Hiroshima Carp, doesn’t seem to be above Murata’s capabilities.

Murata has a .269 career average with 360 home runs, having never gone consecutive seasons with fewer than 20 in his 15-year career. He’s 135 hits shy of 2,000 and has driven in 1,123 runs. If the game hasn’t passed him by, he could be a nice veteran presence in the clubhouse and a decent player coming off the bench.

In past years, he’d seem like the kind of free agent a team would scoop up rather quickly. Maybe the NPB market has simply changed for older players who aren’t favored sons anywhere — there certainly isn’t much room for Murata with his original club, the Yokohama BayStars, nor the team closest to his hometown of Sasaguri in Fukuoka Prefecture, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. If so, his lonely offseason could set off alarm bells for players in similar situations in the future.

Murata has been floating among the rest of the free agents since the end of the year, but there have been no takers. And with the calendar having flipped to 2018, the silence from NPB clubs is about to become deafening.