Monday, February 21, 2011

MLB and NPB: New Places, Same Faces

The following is my most recent essay for Baseball Reflections.

Baseball players in Japan began spring training last week, and MLB pitchers and catchers reported this week. Do you know who they are and where they are? In the constant merry-go-round that is professional sports, it’s difficult to keep up with what player is on what team these days.
Let’s break down the comings and goings between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball.

Hello, MLB

After Hisashi Iwakuma’s botched posting, this is a short list.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka – The 2010 batting champion (.346 average) with the Chiba Lotte Marines signed with the Minnesota Twins, becoming Minnesota’s first Asian-born major leaguer.

Yoshinori Tateyama – He’s not Yu Darvish, but he was his teammate on the Nippon Ham Fighters. The relief pitcher had a career-low 1.80 ERA last season with the Fighters, and the Texas Rangers hope he can duplicate that – including his .213 opponent average – with them in 2011.

Goodbye, MLB

Akinori Iwamura – The second baseman for the 2008 World Series runner-up Tampa Bay Rays is returning to Japan after disappointing stints with both Pittsburgh and Oakland in 2010. The 32-year-old signed with the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Kaz Matsui – Joining Iwamura on the Eagles is fellow infielder Kaz Matsui, who played for the Mets, Rockies, and Astros. Although Matsui did not live up to expectations in New York, he did appear in the World Series (2007 with Colorado against eventual champion Boston Red Sox).

Kleenex Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, where Akinori Iwamura and Kaz Matsui
will call home with the Rakuten Golden Eagles

Hello, NPB

Baseball fans complain that Japanese players have been less than spectacular in MLB. Despite helping the Red Sox win a World Series in 2007 and posting an 18-3 record the following season, Daisuke Matsuzaka needs to have a strong, injury-free season to prove he’s worthy of his multi-million-dollar contract. Kei Igawa (Yankees) has spent the majority of his MLB career in MiLB, and Ryota Igarashi (Mets) isn’t far behind. Does anyone remember Yasuhiko Yabuta?

The baseball pipeline runs in both directions, and Japan has received its share of duds over the years. Granted, players who don’t quite make it in MLB usually don’t go to Japan with the same amount of fanfare as an Ichiro or a Daisuke or a Hideki Matsui, and recently players – Matt Murton, Craig Brazell, and Colby Lewis, to name a few – have flourished on the other side of the Pacific. But look at what the Japanese league is getting from MLB in 2011. In the column Hardball Talk on, baseball writer Aaron Gleeman calls the fresh crop of former major leaguers venturing into NPB “ . . . an amusing list of washed-up former stars . . . top prospect busts . . . and role players who for whatever reason never seemed to get any traction in MLB.” Ouch.

Let’s break down the notable names making their NPB debuts in 2011.

Gleeman’s “Washed-up former stars”

Byung-Hyun Kim – The right-handed pitcher hasn’t played an MLB game since September of 2007. He signed with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in January.

Chan Ho Park – After a disappointing season with the Yankees and the Pirates, the 2001 All-Star will play for the Orix Buffaloes.

Chad Tracy – The error-prone Diamondbacks standout is now the second baseman for the Hiroshima Carp.

Chad Tracy's new team may have finished 21.5 games out of first place last season,
but the Carp's ballpark is spectacular.

Gleeman’s “Top prospect busts”

Wladimir Balentien – The outfielder did well in the minors, in the majors (with the Mariners and the Reds)? Not so much. He’ll try his luck with the Yakult Swallows.

Bryan Bullington – The #1 overall pick by Pittsburgh in the 2002 MLB Draft, the right-hander won his first MLB game with the Royals last August, defeating the Yankees 1-0. That may be his only MLB win; he was designated for assignment in November and later signed with the Carp.

Joel Guzman – Guzman signed with the Dodgers in 2001 and was traded to Tampa Bay for Julio Lugo in 2006. After spending the 2010 in the Orioles’ Double A team, Guzman will be a utility player for the Chunichi Dragons.

Wladimir Balentien will see his name on this brilliant video board at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

Gleeman’s Failed role players

Jonathan Albaladejo – He went from the Yankees of MLB to the Yankees of NPB. Albaladejo signed with the Yomiuri Giants, likely replacing Bronx native Marc Kroon, who was invited to spring training by the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

Micah Hoffpauir – In the spring of 2009, Hoffpauir was set to replace Derrek Lee as the first baseman of the Cubs, the team where he spent his entire MLB career. Now, the 30-year-old Texan is playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Hokkaido in northern Japan. (The aforementioned Murton, Hoffpauir’s former Cubs teammate, told him he’d love it.)

Rusty Ryal - The former Arizona Diamondbacks infielder signed with the Giants, but his job isn’t secure. He may have to fight Taishi Ohta and Yoshiyuki Kamei for a starting spot at third base.

Jonathan Albaladejo will search for consistency at the Tokyo Dome.

Other Who Made the Move to Japan in 2011

Brian Bannister (Yomiuri Giants) – The former Mets/Royal righty is the son of Floyd Bannister, who played one season in Japan (1990 for the Yakult Swallows).

Marcos Vechionacci (Hanshin Tigers) – Yankees minor league infielder never made it higher than Double A. 

Marcos Vechionacci will pray for his professional career at the baseball shrine adjacent
to his new home ballpark, Koshien Stadium in Osaka.


Daniel said...

I'd be really shocked to see Chad Tracy take the starting 2B role from Akihiro Higashide, but stranger things have happened and I'm not sure where else he'd fit in the Carp lineup

shrinecastle said...

I knew you'd take issue with a possible Higashide conflict!

Daniel said...

You know me too well! That's one of my favorite players/jerseys.