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Sunday, May 20, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Talented youngster Aranami brings excitement to BayStars lineup


The question is often asked: "What will happen to Japanese baseball if the star players keep going to play in the major leagues?"

News photo
Sho Aranami

My response is always the same: "Japanese baseball will be fine. In order for the stars to keep going, they will have to keep coming." And they do.

Inevitably every season, a few players whose names we did not know in February when the teams are in spring camp, step up to become not only starters in their clubs' lineups, but also prominent members headed for All-Star status and bright futures in the game.

One such surprise (at least to me) guy this year is Yokohama BayStars center fielder Sho Aranami. He had been expected to break into his team's starting lineup this season, but he has shown he is ready to play, and he has been improving substantially since the season began.

Aranami, Yokohama's leadoff man who wears uniform No. 4, played only 28 games at the varsity level in 2011, batting .256 with no home runs after being called up from the minors in September.

His statistics with Yokohama's Eastern League farm team were not all that great, either. His average was .270 in 88 games, but he did steal 20 bases in the EL during his first year as a professional.

The 26-year-old was drafted No. 3 by the 'Stars in 2010 after he played industrial league ball with the Toyota Auto team. A hometown favorite from Kanagawa Prefecture, Aranami is said to be drawing a 2012 salary of only ¥13 million and is proving he is underpaid. Playing the role of an effective "top batter," he seems to have come from the mold that produced former Japanese batting champions and current major leaguers Ichiro Suzuki and Norichika Aoki.

Not that his talent level is anywhere near the skills of those two yet but, like them, he's a left-handed batter and a fleet-footed outfielder making highlight reel defensive plays and becoming a game multi-hitting machine. Like Ichiro and Aoki, he also gets his share of infield and "safety bunt" hits.

Aranami knocked out four hits in a game against the Yomiuri Giants at Utsunomiya last week and made a spectacular diving catch in left-center to rob a Hanshin Tigers batter of an extra-base hit at Yokohama three nights later.

He was 3-for-4 in that game, had two more hits the following day and another 3-for-5 performance against the Tigers last Sunday, raising his batting average to .352.

That would have been good enough to lead the Central League, except he does not have enough plate appearances to qualify. He is only a few at-bats shy however and, since he hits first in the BayStars lineup, he will quickly make up the difference and enter the batman race table at or near the top in a few days.

Teammate Alex Ramirez plays alongside Aranami in the Yokohama outfield and also played with Aoki during their days with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Ramirez said about Aranami, "He has great potential and all the tools to become a star player. He runs good, fields good, hits good, and time will tell just how far he can go.

"I like him. He's very aggressive, plays hard, and he should be able to steal 30 to 40 bases in this league. Also, he is working a lot on his hitting with Nori, so he has a good mentor," added Ramirez, referring to veteran infielder Norihiro Nakamura, another Baystars teammate.

Aranami is nowhere near qualification for free agency, of course. The minimum service time for domestic free agency is seven years, and for overseas nine full seasons. It is not too early, though, for major league scouts to start putting a watch on him, and posting for MLB service can come any time prior to free agency.

It does not help that Aranami is playing for a last-place team, as he would naturally draw more attention if he were in the lineup of an "A-Class" club. Still, he is making a name for himself as one of the most exciting young players in Japanese baseball this season.

As I said, the Japanese star players may keep going to the majors, but they keep coming too. Keep your eye on Aranami. My bet is he will appear in the NPB All-Star series in July and — who knows? — we may be seeing him playing in the American or National League in the years ahead.

* * *

Finally this week, Bill Arnold's "Beyond Column" feature recently included the following item about a major leaguer:

"Over the past two seasons, (Kansas City) Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur has connected with a group of A's fans who are regulars in Section 149 of the Oakland Coliseum bleachers. To thank them for cheering for him, Francoeur bought 20 pizzas that were delivered to the group during a day game."

Now, that is my kind of player.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com



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