Archive > March 2009

Ken Takahashi Released, on His Way to The Mets

» 30 March 2009 » In mlb prospects » 1 Comment

As we first learned from commenter Nelson, the Blue Jays have released lefty Ken Takahashi. Baseball sources have confirmed his release from the Jays, and mlb.com also has a blurb about him signing with the Mets.

So it looks like the prediction that I made in the offseason has turned out to be correct.

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New Pitch Update: Uehara, Matsuzaka

» 29 March 2009 » In mlb » 3 Comments

As MLB camps wrap up, players are making their final tweaks before the regular season starts. For Koji Uehara, that means finally testing his new pitches in a game situation. Uehara is planning on testing his newly-developed changeup in his  appearance today against the Mets. No word on whether the curve ball he was working on will make an appearance.

Meanwhile, Daisuke Matsuzaka took a souvenier home from the WBC — a new forkball. I was a little surprised to see that in the news, because Matsuzaka threw a forkball in Japan and I didn’t realize he stopped in MLB. Apparently he couldn’t keep his forkball under control with an MLB ball, and didn’t throw any forks at all last season. The WBC afforded him the opportunity to work with noted forkballers Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish, who gave him some tips on how to thow the pitch. Matsuzaka threw five forkballs in his first bullpen session with the Red Sox, and said it’s possible that he’ll use it during the season.

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Prediction: Pacific League

» 29 March 2009 » In npb » 3 Comments

It’s much harder to predict the standings for the Pacific League as the teams are so evenly matched. But I’ll give it a shot.

1. Seibu Lions: I think we’ll see a little regression from Okawari Nakamura and Kazuyuki Hoashi, but a better performance from Hideaki Wakui. Overall it looks like the Lions have enough to repeat.
Key Players: Wakui, Hoashi, whoever gets the most at-bats at 1st base

2. Nippon Ham Fighters: Nippon Ham was actually outscored by their opponents last year. I’m putting them here because I believe that they have the pitching and defense to win close games, and that Sho Nakata will turn up at some point during the season and provide a little offense.The new additions to the bullpen have the task of replacing Michael Nakamura as well.
Key Players: Nakata, Ryan Wing, Masanori Hayashi

3. Chiba Lotte Marines: I didn’t think I’d have the Marines making the playoffs, but I’m putting them in third because they have a solid front four in their rotation, and no real holes in their lineup. Hopefully Bobby V can find a way to keep Tadahito Iguchi and Shunichi Nemoto both in the lineup, as Nemoto broke out last year with a .296/.369/.430 line.
Key Players: Bobby V, Yoshihisa Naruse, Yuuki Karakawa

4. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles: The Eagles have two WBC heroes at the top of their rotation (Hisashi Iwakuma, Masahiro Tanaka), a couple of solid mid-rotation guys (Darrell Rasner, Hideaki Asai), and some power in the middle of their lineup (Norihiro Nakamura, Fernando Seguignol, Takeshi Yamasaki). But on the other hand they have some holes in their lineup and bullpen.
Key Players: the bullpen

5. Orix Buffaloes: Manager Daijiro Ohishi took over in May of last year and lead the Buffaloes to a seemingly improbable playoff run. Looking back, the Buffaloes pitched better than I realized, with a 3.93 team era and four starters with sub-4:00 eras and at least 10 wins. If the pitching staff can repeat that performance, and the aging lineup of foreign sluggers holds up, they’ll be competitive. If not, look for a B-class finish.
Key Players: Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, Jose Fernandez, Greg LaRocca

6. Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks: It’s hard to pick the Hawks to finish this low with the amazing rotation depth they have — Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi, Nagisa Arakaki, Shota Ohba, Kenji Ohtonari, Kameron Loe, Kazumi Saito (if he can come back from his injuries) and rookie Shingo Tatsumi. But on the flipside, their lineup just isn’t what it used to be. The Hawks hit just 99 home runs last year and haven’t added any significant bats. They’re hoping for a return to form from aging sluggers Hiroki Kokubo and Hitoshi Tamura, who have been shells of their former selves in recent years.
Key Players: Kokubo, Tamura

It was tough to pick any of these teams to finish last, because the league is so balanced and all the teams have strengths. It seems likely that Seibu will finish in the top 3 and SoftBank will finish in the bottom 3, but everything else is up for grabs. What are your thoughts?

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The New Era: Hiroshima Toyo Carp

» 28 March 2009 » In sports business » Comments Off

Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium begins its history with the 2009 season. An interesting attempt to not only use the company name, but the slogan associated with the brand name. This makes you wonder if, in the  future, stadiums will have names like NIKE Just Do It Stadium or McDonalds I’m Lovin It Stadium. Fans are able to get a quick glimpse of the stadium with a 360 degree panorama movie on the stadium’s website. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the 2009 season look to market their new stadium with ballpark tour opportunities and holding a grand opening event prior to the start of the season.

The Toyo Carp is known for its globalized vision as they were the first Japanese baseball team to establish a baseball academy outside of Japan which started in the Dominican Republic in 1990. The most famous graduate from the academy is current Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano. The Toyo Carp are utilizing the academy in a unique way starting from this year where a Hiroshima City University student will have the opportunity to participate in a six month internship opportunity to experience and learn from a different culture. In 2004, the Toyo Carp also has established a pitching academy in Guandong, China.

The team’s presence on the web has been expanding with a local television station RCC operating a website, RCC Carp Internet Stadium where in-game updates are available with opportunities for fans to interact with others by chatting and asking questions to each other. A mobile website for the Carp has been established for fans to receive updates on their cells regarding their favorite team as well.

The Toyo Carp is a unique team, as they are owned by the city, which is different from the other eleven teams in the NPB. The team entered the Central league to revive the city from the aftermath of World War II. Even though Mazda has become the principal shareholder of the team, they are not associated with the operations and the Toyo Carp is known as a city-owned team of Hiroshima. When their operations were struggling financially in the 1950’s, the community developed a donation project to set up barrels in multiple areas around the stadium to call out for donations, which worked out effectively with the support from the community.

Now the team contributes to activities around the city by organizing a project called P3 Hiroshima; involving the Toyo Carp, Sanfrecce Hiroshima (J-League team), and the symphony orchestra of Hiroshima. The P3 Hiroshima emphisizes on giving Pride, Passion, and Prospects to the city. Some of the activities include the organizations inviting children to their events, professional athletes visiting local schools, and the organization being involved with charities. Toyo Carp will look to give back to the city even more with their brand new stadium in the 2009 season.

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Cubs Sign Korean Amateur Outfielder

» 27 March 2009 » In mlb prospects » Comments Off

Update, March 27, 6:30pm: A friend of mine who’s in the know pointed out the correct Romanization of Kim’s name, so I’ve corrected it below.

Picked this one up on the Japanese version of joins.com, which appears to be a Korean publication.The article, quoting a scout from a Korean team, says the Cubs have signed high schooler Dong-Yub Kim to a contract with a $550k bonus. Kim is a 6’1, 181 lbs. outfielder who reportedly projects to have some power.

This is the first MLB signing out of Korea this offseason. I’ll post more information if I can find any.

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Prediction: Central League

» 27 March 2009 » In npb » 4 Comments

1. Hanshin Tigers: This could be the year for Hanshin. Colonel Sanders has been exhumed from his resting place at the bottom of the Dotombori River, which should be enough to put the team over the top. Hanshin led the Central League for most of the season last year, despite a serious lack of home run power. If Takahiro Arai and Kevin Mench can combine for 45 home runs or so they should be tough to beat.
Key Players: Arai, Mench

2. Yomiuri Giants: Yomiuri slipped past Hanshin for the Central League crown at the end of the season in 2008, then took the Japan Series down to the wire before losing to Seibu. Look for a bounce-back year from Sun-Yeop Lee. The departure of Koji Uehara creates an opportunity for someone like Kentaro Nishimura, Shun Tohno, or Takahiko Nomaguchi to step up.
Key Players: Nishimura, Tohno, Nomaguchi

3. Hiroshima Carp: The Carp took a big step forward last season despite the loss of ace Hiroki Kuroda to the Dodgers. The lineup is respectable 1-5 and they have three good starters in Colby Lewis, Kan Ohtake, and Kenta Maeda. Look for a breakout year from Maeda.
Key Player: K Maeda

4. Yakult Swallows: Yakult has a number of good arms in its bullpen, some young starters that could develop, and Japan’s top hitter in Norichika Aoki. The big concern with the Swallows is a lack of team power, so their ability to compete for a playoff spot will depend on whether or not some of the non-Aoki batters can hit for average.
Key Players: Jaime D’Antona, Yoshinori, Tatsunori Masubuchi

5. Chunichi Dragons: The Dragons finished third last year despite being outscored by 21 by opponents on the season. This year they’ve subtracted Kenshin Kawakami, Norihiro Nakamura, and Tyrone Woods and have replaced them with untested players. I expect a fall in the standings.
Key Players: Tony Blanco, Kei Nomoto, Kazuki Yoshimi

6. Yokohama BayStars: Yokohama had by far the worst pitching in the Central last season, and despite moving Hayato Terahara back into the rotation, retaining Daisuke Miura, and adding Ryan Glynn, I don’t think they have enough depth to get out of the cellar. I think they’ll be more competitive than last year though.
Key Players: Terahara

Any thoughts? Pacific League is coming up next.

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MLB Teams Looking To Asia

» 26 March 2009 » In mlb prospects » 2 Comments

Scouting Asia has become a full-time operation for a number of MLB teams. Here are a few that I expect to see watching Japan this season.

Note that I haven’t included the most obvious teams here; by now it isn’t a surprise if the Red Sox, Dodgers or Mets are in the mix for a Japanese player. Nor is it meant to be an exhaustive list; there’s always room for surprises.

Texas Rangers: Pacific Rim scout Jim Colborn’s name shows up in the Japanese media fairly frequently. Colborn coached in Japan in the early 90’s and has Kazuo Fukumori and Yukinaga Maeda. He was last seen scouting a couple of pitchers from Hosei University. Texas also had the top dollar offer for Junichi Tazawa but were rebuffed for Boston.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays set up a Pacific Rim department last offseason, headed up by former Nippon Ham Fighter Rob Ducey. They also signed lefthanders Ken Takahashi and Shigeki Noguchi to minor league deals over the offseason, though Noguchi failed his physical. The linked report indicates they’ll be looking for more central pieces as the department ramps up.

San Francisco Giants: Not much to go on here, but Asia scout John Cox’s name has shown up in the media a couple of times. I can’t think of a notable Japanese/NPB signing the Giants have made (unless we count Masashi Murakami) so we’ll see if they make one this year.

New York Yankees: Gene Michael made a trip to Japan last year, reportedly to watch Yu Darvish. I expect that they’ll continue to monitor top guys like Darvish and Norichika Aoki as longer-term prospects, but not be hunting for bargains or middling players.

Atlanta Braves: Signed Kenshin Kawakami and Yoshinori Yamarin last season, and also made a strong bid for Tazawa. Atlanta has also signed minor league-level amateurs such as Ryohei Shimabukuro and Kazuhiro Takeoka in the past.

I’ll have a list of guys they might be competing for within a week or so.

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Igawa, Others Demoted

» 25 March 2009 » In mlb » 3 Comments

The inevitable happened: Kei Igawa has been reassigned to the Yankees’ minor league camp after a surprisingly good spring numbers-wise. His demotion came after a 4-run, 4-walk outing agains the Rays in which he yielded his first and only run of the spring. Igawa finished up with the one earned run in 15 1/3 spring innings. Nikkan Sports quoted him as saying, “it feels like my time to appeal (for a spot on the team) in camp has ended. They’re going to have me start down there and I want my agent to do my best”. That last statement indicates that Igawa’s agent is looking for a team that is willing to trade for Igawa.

Other recent demotions include Ken Kadokura, Katsuhiro Maekawa, Keiichi Yabu, Ken Takahashi and Junichi Tazawa. Takahashi had pulled a muscle earlier in the spring.

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NPB Trade: Ichiba for Miyade

» 25 March 2009 » In npb » 5 Comments

Rakuten has finally given up on pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba, trading the former top prospect to Yakult for outfielder Ryuji Miyade. Ichiba was once a hot commodity; multiple teams (Hanshin, Yomiuri, Yokohama if I remember correctly) paid him under the table prior to the 2004 with the hopes of signing him. That was back when top college and industrial league players could choose which team to sign with prior to being drafted. Ichiba eventually choose to sign with the expansion Rakuten franchise, a team that did not yet exist when all the scandalous payments were going down.

This trade reminds me of the deal that brought Hayato Terahara to to Yokohama. Terahara was also a former top prospect who didn’t pan out with the team that drafted him (SoftBank), so they moved him for a hitter, Hitoshi Tamura. Terahara has blossomed into a star in Yokohama, while Tamura hasn’t accomplished much for the Hawks. The big difference is that Tamura was a much better player than Miyade is now.

It’s hard not to like this trade for Yakult — they get a 26 year-old former top prospect who may still have some upside left, and only give up a 31 year-old fourth outfielder who apparently didn’t fit into their plans. Rakuten gets a guy who should be able to fill a bench role, but it’s safe to say that when the team drafted Ichiba they were hoping for more.

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The Life and Times of Hisashi Iwakuma

» 24 March 2009 » In npb » 2 Comments

More than anyone else on the Japan team, it was Hisashi Iwakuma that made a name for himself in this year’s WBC. Iwakuma put in an outstanding performance in the round two elimination game against Cuba, and again in the final when he left the game with a lead over Korea. He isn’t a new face to NPB fans, but he’s not a phenom like Yu Darvish and hasn’t gotten much exposure abroad. 

It’s been somewhat of a winding road to this point for Iwakuma. Let’s take a look at how he got here.

2002
I was living near Osaka in 2002, when Iwakuma arrived on the scene for the local Kintetsu Buffaloes. The Buffaloes were coming off a Japan Series appearance, but had a pretty weak rotation, and he put up respectable numbers in his first full year. More than anything, I recall his funky two-stage delivery, and that people were talking about his as someone to watch in coming years.

2003
Iwakuma broke out with a 15-10 record and 3.45 ERA in 195 2/3 innings, and along with Jeremy Powell gave the Buffaloes a solid front-end rotation.  Kintetsu’s power lineup was aging at that point though, and they weren’t able to compete with the strong Fukuoka Daiei Hawks for the Pacific League title.

2004
Iwakuma started the season with a 12-game winning streak and was the top vote-getting pitcher in the Pacific League for the All-Star game.  Iwakuma plays in the Olympics later in the summer and finished with a 15-2 record.

More signficantly, the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix Blue Wave agreed to merge their baseball operations in the summer of ’04, leading to the establishment of team currently known as the Orix Buffaloes. The merger spurred talks of contraction, which eventually led to a fan-supported players’ strike and the creation of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles franchise. The merge was a sad event for me, as it meant the end of the Blue Wave name, which I really liked.

2004-5 Offseason
Iwakuma refused to play for the merged Buffaloes team, and was traded to the Rakuten expansion team. Rakuten seemed to have a decent foundation to its rotation with Iwakuma and college ace Yasuhiro Ichiba
. Ichiba never panned out, and was just recently traded.

2005-7
Wilderness years. Two-stage delivery’s were banned in NPB, forcing Iwakuma to re-work his mechanics. This video gives you a sense of the changes he had to make; you can see his Kintetsu-era windup from about 1:00-1:20*. He also struggled through injuries and had a doormat of an expansion team behind him until 2007.

 *note about the video: click the large button that says 再生 to play the video. There is also an annoying comment feature that can be disabled if you click the button in the lower right of the video player, the one that kind of looks like a chick with a cartoon talk-bubble

2008
A big return to form. Iwakuma stayed healthy and apparently mastered his mechanics. The video I linked to above shows a change he made to his arm slot, which resulted in him getting more groundball outs, and dramatically reduced his home run rate. Despite his excellent season, Iwakuma was snubbed from the Olympic team, which in part allowed him to win a league-leading 21 games. He was the first 20-game winner in NPB since Kei Igawa
 and Kazumi Saito both won 20 in 2003, and the first 21-game winner since Yoshinori Sato in 1985. 

For his efforts, he was awarded the Sawamura Award as NPB’s best pitcher, and the Pacific League MVP despite playing for a 5th-place team.

The Future
Iwakuma signed a 3-year, 1.1bn yen ($11m) deal with Rakuten after the 2008 season. It’s uncommon for NPB players to sign multi-year deals prior to reaching free agency, so his contract is evidence that Rakuten really thinks highly of him.  Since I was getting asked this during the NPB chats, as far as I can tell he has about five years of NPB service time, which means he has another four to go before reaching international free agency. Rakuten seems to be commited to building a competitive team around him.

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