Yokohama or Omaha in 2009?
It's that time of year - and I'm not referring to the race for the postseason.
Conventional baseball wisdom says players on losing teams, journeymen on every roster and AAA call-ups hustle and play hard in September in order to secure next year's contract. Although that line of reasoning makes sense, some players may be hoping for an entirely different kind of deal.
Japan's Central and Pacific League franchises are allowed to carry four gaijin, or foreign players on their active rosters. Korean and Taiwanese players sometimes get a shot at Japanese baseball, but North Americans and Latin American players with a minimum of some AAA experience (major league credentials are preferred) are the first choice.
So why would an American or Hispanic player subject himself to one of the world's biggest culture and language barriers instead of staying closer to home? For the AAA veteran or AAAA lifer who lives for brief big league call-ups, it could be their only shot at a big payday.
A typical first-year Japanese baseball wage of $350,000 to $700,000 plus a free apartment and interpreter may sound like petty cash by current major league standards, but it's a gold mine compared to earning $40,000 to $75,000 in Pawtucket or Memphis. Succeed and stick around a few years, and $2 million to $4 million is definitely within reach.
At one time, Japanese teams tossed suitcases full of yen at over the hill major eaguers only to see them flop miserably. In many cases, obscure AAA veterans and marginal big leaguers performed much better for lower wages. How did that happen?
While Japanese players are treated well by normal standards, the constant pampering and luxury found in the Show isn't the norm with the Nippon Ham Fighters or Yakult Swallows. High-maintenance big leaguers may grumble at treatment that a AAA escapee would relish.
American stars in Japan include a long list of major league benchwarmers, role players and September call-up types. Joe Stanka, Dave Roberts, John Sipin, Charlie Manuel, Randy Bass, Bobby Rose, Boomer Wells, Luis Lopez, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, Alex Ramirez and Greg LaRocca may be all but unknown in the U.S., but they became big names in Japan.
Which players are high on the list of prospects for a year or two in Nippon? Think in terms of guys who have a ton a AAA experience and limited major league numbers, three-year types who are arbitration eligible for the first time but don't have the stats to warrant a big raise or older big league free agents who may not draw more than an non-guaranteed contract offer on this side of the ocean.
Most of the demand is for first basemen, third basemen and outfielders with some pop in their bats. Gap power in the U.S. can translate to home runs in Japan, where the fences tend to be shorter. The language barrier closes the door to catchers, and middle infielders are signed when teams believe they can be an important part of the offense. Even though Japanese players are bigger and stronger than they were a generation ago, gaijin are still viewed as a vital source of run production.
The "grip it and rip it" mentality of American baseball is far different than the one run at a time school of play that is often found in Japan. In some cases, heart of the order hitters are told to lay down sacrifice bunts. Curves and other breaking pitches are a frequent sight, as are submarine-style hurlers.
As one former American export said, "They play baseball in Japan, but it's a completely different game." Foreign players need to adapt and keep their opinions to themselves, as Japan is a society where conformity and group harmony rules.
American pitchers are sometimes signed for duty in Japan, but the perpetual shortage of arms in the U.S. means even marginal hurlers can be the undeserving objects of several contract offers that provide a shot at the majors. This report will focus on position players who might appeal to Japan's 12 major league teams.
So Taguchi is an obvious candidate for Japanese baseball next season. Hitting just .198 (17 for 86) as a backup outfielder for the Phillies, Taguchi left his native land and began his major league career with the Cardinals in 2001.
A fourth outfielder with the Redbirds, Taguchi was a capable role player in St. Louis. He turns 40 before the start of the 2009 season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Taguchi finish out his long career in Japan.
Sticking with the National League, D-backs first baseman and pinch-hitter Tony Clark might get more than a typical offer from Japan based on his 265 career HRs. At 6'7", the 36-year old Clark could have some trouble with Japanese doorways.
If Greg Norton is ignored by major league organizations, he might be able to prolong his career in Tokyo. The 36-year old journeyman still has some pop in his bat. Cubs 1B/PH Daryle Ward has a decent big league resume, and he is the kind of American player who could put up solid power numbers in Japan.
Kevin Barker and Rob Macowiak of the Louisville Bats (Reds AAA team) would be wise to take the money if a Japanese team offers a guaranteed one-year deal. If speed is preferred over power, Scott Podsednik of the Rockies might need to take language lessons.
The Marlins are loaded with potential Japanese signees. At age 38, Jason Wood has spent 13 seasons in AAA and has exactly 200 major league at-bats. John Gall has had three big league cups of coffee, and he is not a hot young prospect. Third basemen Wes Helms and Dallas McPherson are second-tier possibilities.
Astros utilityman David Newhan has more speed than the average American prospect, and he can play several positions. Dodgers 3B Terry Tiffee tore up the Pacific Coast League with a .378 average in Las Vegas, while OF Jason Repko might find Japan to be his most lucrative option.
Brewers IF/OF Joe Dillon is a versatile sort with a long AAA record and some major league service time. It took eight seasons in the minors before 1B Brad Nelson got a September call-up. With Prince Fielder ahead of him on the depth chart, Japan might not be the worst choice for Nelson. If the postseason market for his services is weak, Mets OF Marlon Anderson could be a Rakuten Golden Eagle or Orix Buffalo in 2009.
He doesn't fit the slugging stereotype for the position, but slick-fielding Pirates 1B Doug Mientkiewicz may get noticed by Japanese scouts. The Giants called up 36-year old 1B Scott McClain in September, and he has performed well. With 19 years of minor league and Japanese experience and just 45 big league ABs (6 hits, .133) prior to September, McClain enters the last game of the season hitting .273 (9 for 33) with a pair of homers.
As a member of the Seibu Lions from 2001 to 2004, McClain was a low-average, all or nothing slugger in the Gorman Thomas mold. Japanese teams are reluctant to give Americans second chances once they have been let go, so that will work against McClain.
Nationals OF Ryan Langerhans and 3B Pete Orr are spare parts on one of baseball's worst teams. That combination of circumstances could mean a lower-tier 2009 contract in Japan.
The Pawtucket Red Sox (International League) have a trio of potential Japanese imports. AAA veteran Joe Thurston hit .316 with 19 stolen bases, and he can play second base or the outfield. 1B Jeff Bailey has been in Pawtucket since 2004 and has two brief stretches in Boston to show for it. The 30-year old may not have another shot to go for a paycheck overflowing with yen. 3B Keith Ginter has seen action with the Astros, Brewers and A's.
The Buffalo Bisons are the top farm club for the Indians, and SS Andy Cannizaro and 2B Tony Graffanino are marginal candidates for Japan. The 36-year old Graffanino bounced back from a serious knee injury to hit .315 in 89 ABs for the Bisons in 2008.
Japanese teams have been burned more than a few times by all or nothing sluggers such as Rob Deer (.151 with the Yomiuri Giants), which reduces Mike Hessman's chances for a contract. The Tigers 1B/3B has 288 career minor league bombs and a .208 (35 for 168) lifetime major league record with 13 HR, 27 RBI and 56 strikeouts.
It tooks Twins DH/1B Randy Ruiz a decade to reach the majors, and he hasn't embarrased himself by hitting .274 (17 for 62). Now that he has some major league experience on his record, Japanese teams might be more interested in the burly right-handed hitter. OF Craig Monroe was released earlier in the season, and a job in Japan could keep his career alive.
After hitting just .159 with the Rangers, OF Ben Broussard found himself with the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees, where he hit .276 with 13 HR and 46 RBI in 239 ABs. 3B Cody Ransom hit 22 HR with 71 RBI in AAA, and he has clubbed 4 HR in just 37 ABs (11 hits, .297) for the Yankees. A mediocre season by Emil Brown means the A's outfielder could have an easier time getting hired in Japan rather than the U.S.
Could Mariners 1B Bryan LaHair get an offer from a Japanese team in need of a lefty swinger? DH Jose Vidro was released in midseason, and Asia might be the place for him to make a comeback.
Even with a heroic homer against the Red Sox, September call-up Dan Johnson is going to have a tough time cracking the talented Rays lineup. The first baseman won't be taking Carlos Pena's job. Declining power numbers for Blue Jays OF Kevin Mench could be turned around with shorter Japanese power alleys. Released OF Shannon Stewart might send his resume to the far east.
With a maximum of 48 available openings (some teams go light on foreigners) and a number of returning players, openings on Japanese rosters are scarce and coveted. For many, it's their first and only opportunity to strike it rich. For others, it's a last chance to stay in baseball while experiencing a unique and fascinating culture.