Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Trio's MLB dreams may impact Samurai Japan's gold medal quest

by Jason Coskrey

The Hiroshima Carp’s Ryosuke Kikuchi, quite possibly the most dynamic defensive second baseman in the world (at least in the conversation), could be playing in MLB next season.

So too could the Yokohama BayStars’ slugging captain Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, one of the stars from the Seibu Lions.

That’s great news for the players, who are in line to realize a dream and a career goal. Ditto for baseball fans, who get to see them compete in MLB — Kikuchi with a glove alone is worth the price of admission.

But with the Tokyo Olympics looming right around the corner, it’s not the most ideal circumstance for Samurai Japan. While all three players are veterans of the national team, they’ll be out of the running for Tokyo 2020 as major leaguers.

That was the elephant in the room when Tsutsugo and Akiyama went public with their intentions late last month.

“Playing on Japan’s top team, for Samurai Japan, has really been an honor,” Tsutsugo said Oct. 29 in Yokohama. “I think it’s also important for the baseball world. So of course I feel like I want to contribute.”

Chances are the outfielder won’t be able to, and neither will Akiyama or Kikuchi should they find new homes with major league teams this offseason.

Unlike NPB, MLB will most likely not be suspending its season during the 2020 Games. Which means Japan’s major leaguers and those of other nations, including the U.S, will not be able to compete. That means Japan would lose three more stars in addition to its players already in the majors, such as Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda and Masahiro Tanaka.

Which means manager Atsunori Inaba’s job just a little bit harder. Inaba was hired in July 2017 with the sole purpose of winning gold at the Tokyo Games. Japan has one silver and two bronze medals from the Olympics but has never tasted gold in a sport considered among the country’s national pastimes.

So with baseball on the program for the first time since 2008, being played at an Olympics staged on home soil and with the sport already excluded from the 2024 Olympic program, there is tremendous pressure to win gold in 2020. Losing three All-Star players, all of whom helped Japan reach the semifinals at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is hardly a perfect scenario.

Tsutsugo has shown great power in NPB, with 205 home runs since beginning his career with the Yokohama BayStars in 2010. Kikuchi is a dynamo at second base and winner of the past seven Golden Glove Awards. Akiyama has posted at least a .300 average and 20 home runs, and won Golden Gloves for roaming center field, in each of the past three seasons.

Those aren’t small losses to absorb.

Japan is already getting a taste of life without them at the Premier12, which is doubling as an Olympic qualifier this year. Tsutsugo isn’t on the team and Akiyama was lost to an injury just before the tournament began. Kikuchi is playing and had a key role, with his bat, in Japan’s comeback win over Venezuela in its opener.

But looking ahead to 2020, it’s not doom and gloom for Japan just yet.

Being without these three players, while a considerable loss, won’t cripple the Japanese effort. Japan would’ve likely been among the favorites had every nation had its MLB players. Without MLB stars, the Japanese will arguably be in the pole position when the 2020 Games begin.

Even the Premier12 team, which won its first three games, is without elite outfielder Yuki Yanagita and ace pitchers Kodai Senga and Tomoyuki Sugano, who could all play key roles in 2020.

Still, losing Akiyama, Kikuchi and Tsutsugo isn’t a small thing when there isn’t a lot of margin for error and every bit of depth helps.

The Olympics, however, isn’t the pinnacle of the baseball world as it is for many other sports. So there’s no expectation for any player to put the chance to compete in the majors on hold if MLB isn’t going to halt its season.

So while fans eagerly wait to see what’s next for the likely departing trio of star players, they may be also wondering the same thing about the national team as 2020 draws near.