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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Teen pitcher Otani looking to make big jump to majors


Highly touted Japanese high school pitcher Shohei Otani wants to skip playing in his home country and will instead look to jump straight into a major league career. At least eight MLB clubs are said to have interest in the 18-year-old hurler from Iwate Prefecture.

Meanwhile, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ignored Otani's advice to the 12 teams in Japan not to draft him, because he's headed for the U.S. The Fighters selected him No. 1 on Oct. 25, securing the rights in Japan to negotiate with Otani until the end of March.

Otani is the latest in a string of Japanese prep school pitchers so apparently good at such a young age and expected to have no problem achieving immediate stardom in the Central or Pacific League — should he decide to go that route.

Among those in the recent past with similar promise and skills belying their young age are Masumi Kuwata, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.

Like Otani, Kuwata and Matsuzaka had definite ideas about what they wanted to do right after high school and, in both their cases, the teams who drafted them were able to get them to play after each said they would not.

In 1985, PL Gakuen High School ace hurler Kuwata said he would attend college before pursuing a career in pro ball. Kuwata told all the Japanese teams not to draft him, saying "I'll see you in four years."

In a shocker, the Yomiuri Giants drafted Kuwata and, as they had anticipated, were able to talk him into changing his mind, postpone his university plans and join the team right away.

Signing bonus and other money aside, they gave him the symbolic "ace number" 18 and convinced Kuwata he could become an immediate star. It proved too much to turn down and, in his second year in 1987, Kuwata, still a teenager, became a regular starter and won 15 games.

Following a stellar career with the Giants, Kuwata appeared in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007 and, after retiring, followed through on his original plans to attend college and graduate with a university degree.

In 1998, Yokohama High School star Matsuzaka insisted he wanted to be drafted by his hometown club, the BayStars, and he suggested the other 11 teams not even consider putting his name on their draft nomination list. However, the Seibu Lions ignored him, with then-manager Osamu Higashio confident he could persuade the youngster to accept the idea of pitching in the Pacific League.

In addition to generous monetary benefits, Higashio offered two more incentives. He was prepared to give Matsuzaka the winning ball from his own 200th career victory game and the uniform No. 21 Higashio wore during his 20-year career with the Nishitetsu, Taiheiyo Club, Crown Lighter and Seibu Lions.

Apparently moved — or perhaps pressured — by the manager's sincere gestures, Matsuzaka agreed to play for the Lions, though he took that ace No. 18 along with Higashio's precious baseball possession.

Matsuzaka became an instant star in the pros at 18. He made his debut against the Nippon Ham Fighters at Tokyo Dome on April 7, 1999, and the game drew a paid attendance of better than 44,000.

Matsuzaka was eventually posted by Seibu in 2006, joined the Boston Red Sox in 2007 at the age of 26, won 15 regular season contests and a World Series game and racked up a 2008 record of 18-3.

His MLB career quickly went downhill after that, with poor performances, shoulder fatigue, various other injuries and Tommy John surgery. His future is now uncertain.

So what will happen with Otani?

I understand the major league teams desire to acquire what they must believe is a "can't miss" prospect who, with a few years seasoning in the minors, should be a top-notch big league pitcher in maybe three-to-five years.

Also appreciated is the concern of the NPB that Otani's signing with an American or National League club might lead to more Japanese youngsters skipping pro ball in their own country and heading straight for the majors.

If I were Otani, though, I would talk to the Fighters and seriously consider playing in Sapporo in 2013. I would shelve the idea of going to the U.S. until I can prove myself as a top pitcher in the Japanese leagues, then look to move on via posting or free agency, following the likes of Kuwata, Matsuzaka and Darvish.

Who knows where Otani will be next spring if he signs with a major league club?

Probably in some small U.S. rookie league town where he would have to cope with language and cultural barriers. From there, he would have to work his way up through the system, maybe making it to the big leagues in a few years.

If he were to choose Nippon Ham, he could be in the Fighters Okinawa camp from Feb. 1, the center of media and fan attention as was Yuki Saito in 2011.

In April, he could be pitching in front of 42,000 fans at Sapporo Dome, starting a professional career that would eventually lead him to the majors at the peak of his skills at the age of 26 or 27, with plenty of time for a lengthy MLB career.

Current Fighters pitcher Brian Wolfe, a potential teammate, said he has heard about Otani and his flaming heater but said, if he's looking to head across the Pacific right away, "He had better have more than just a 100-mph (161-kph) fastball. The major league hitters have seen a lot of those."

Fighters executive director Toshimasa Shimada was asked what he thinks might be the chances of his team signing Otani.

"I have no idea," he responded, adding, "But we're sure going to try."

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com



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