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Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

BayStars, Hawks complete unusual swap of veterans


Trades are not a common occurrence in Japanese baseball, and deals involving star players — or at least starting players on most teams — are rarely made.

Sure, there have been some trades in the past where the term "blockbuster" might have been used, but they happened long ago.

In 1987, the Lotte Orions traded superstar and three-time batting Triple Crown winner Hiromitsu Ochiai to the Chunichi Dragons for three players: pitchers Kazuhiko Ushijima and Sadaharu Hiranuma and second baseman Seiji Kamikawa.

Prior to that, in an unusual transaction involving a foreign player, the Yakult Swallows during the winter of 1978-79 dealt Charlie Manuel, coming off a 39-home run, 103-RBI, .312 season in which his team won the Japan Series, to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for pitcher Toshio Kambe and two minor league outfielders, Takehide Sato and Yoshitaka Terada.

These days however, most of the big-name players changing teams do so by way of free agency and, when off-season trades are made, they usually involve reserves or guys who spent most of the previous year on farm teams.

So far this autumn, several such deals have been worked out, but there is one transaction of note where the players concerned might have an impact on the teams to which they are going.

The Yokohama Baystars sent outfielder Yuki Yoshimura to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks for outfielder Hitoshi Tamura on Nov 5. In the three-for-three trade, four lesser-known pitchers will also change sides, with right-hander Teruaki Yoshikawa and lefty Yasushi Kamiuchi moving from Fukuoka to Yokohama with Tamura, and southpaw Shogo Yamamoto and righty Shintaro Ejiri going from the Baystars to the Hawks with Yoshimura.

It will be most interesting to see what happens with Yoshimura. While Tamura, 35, returns to Yokohama where he played from 1995 to 2006 before being traded to the Hawks, Yoshimura is also going home. No, he has never played for Softbank but hails from Fukuoka where he played high school ball.

A 2002 Yokohama No. 5 draft choice, Yoshimura spent most of his first three seasons as a professional on the Shonan Searex farm team. In 2005 he had ho-hum Eastern League stats of 10 homers, 44 RBIs and a .252 batting average, and he began 2006 with the label as a minor league player on the Shonan squad in Yokosuka. Then a strange thing happened that spring.

A series of injuries to key players on the Yokohama team forced the 'Stars to call up replacements from the Searex; not necessarily for talent but just to get bodies to fill in until the disabled guys could return. Yoshimura took over for first baseman Takahiro Saeki and, apparently inspired by having his first real chance to play as a starter in the Central League, he began hitting for power and average.

As summer approached, Saeki returned, but center fielder Tamura — yes, the guy for whom Yoshimura was just traded — got hurt, and the still hot-hitting Yoshimura moved to his position. When the season ended, Yoshimura had played 111 varsity games, hit 26 homers, knocked in 66 runs and batted .311.

He was so good, he was named to the post-season All-Japan squad for action against a visiting team of major league All-Stars, and his emergence made Tamura expendable. The BayStars had so much confidence in Yoshimura, they traded Tamura to Fukuoka for pitcher Hayato Terahara.

At first, Yoshimura did not disappoint, turning in a couple of very productive seasons and reinforcing his status as a regular and a star player.

In 2007, Yoshimura belted 24 homers, had 85 RBIs and batted .274, and in 2008 he put up numbers of 34, 91, .260. He played more than 140 games each of those seasons but, in spite of playing all 144 games in 2009, his stats fell to 16, 54, .248, and it kept getting worse after that.

In the final year of the old "rabbit ball," Yoshimura in 2010 managed only three homers with 11 RBIs while batting .205 in 49 games. In 2011, his numbers were five home runs, 11 RBIs and .200 in 81 games, and this past season just two homers, seven RBIs and .209 in 25 games. Obviously, he spent a good deal of the past three years back on the Yokosuka farm team.

What the heck happened?

Talk about a yo-yo; Yoshimura went from a No. 5 draft pick to a so-so minor league player to a first-team All-Star and back down to the farm. At 28 (born June 14, 1984), he should be at the peak of his skills and in the prime of his career. Softbank must figure he can bounce back.

The Hawks will find themselves in a sort-of semi-rebuilding year in 2013. They finished third in the 2012 Pacific League pennant race and won the first stage of the PL Climax Series but lost in the final stage after having won the Japan Series the previous year.

The trade for Yoshimura will be huge if he can make a comeback and, curiously, Softbank is hoping another former All-Star will take up the slack and make up for the loss of retiring slugger and team captain Hiroki Kokubo. American Bryan LaHair was on the 2012 National League All-Star squad but was just let go by the Chicago Cubs. The first baseman agreed last week to join Fukuoka.

Also coming back to the Hawks as a free agent from the Orix Buffaloes is right-handed pitcher Terahara, the guy traded from Fukuoka to Yokohama for Tamura six years ago. Terahara, like Yoshimura, is a Kyushu native (from Miyazaki) and was once a No. 1 draft choice (2001) of the then-Daiei Hawks.

Though he went only 6-8 with a 3.92 ERA this past season, Terahara is expected to improve on that next year and help reinvigorate the Softbank staff which lost three key starters from 2011 to other teams via free agency this year.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com



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