This is only the beginning

Originally Published: March 2, 2007
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

Once upon a time, Japanese baseball was thought to be a pale imitation of the stateside major league game. Then came the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Once upon a time, it was only the rare Japanese player who would dare to cross the Pacific and try his hand in the bigs. Now comes an offseason in which Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kei Igawa and Akinori Iwamura have all come over to take a shot.

Next up ...
Which Asian players could make it to The Show down the road? Check out the top prospects.
It's a new era, friends. Times are changing.

Even if the posting system stays in place (which is far from a lock), we will see more of this -- more parity, more player crossovers -- in the years to come. So it's time to start keeping a much closer eye on the players and teams in Japan.

Don't know where to start? No worries. Here are 10 players to watch, 10 guys (in no particular order) you've never heard of, but who could go household in the global baseball era.

Norichika Aoki, CF
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
5-foot-8, 165 pounds, age 25
Like his idol, Ichiro Suzuki, Aoki hits the ball to all fields and shows great speed on the basepaths. As a rookie in 2005, he won a Central League batting title and collected 202 hits (only the second Japanese player to ever get 200 hits; Ichiro was the other), and in his second season, the young center fielder drastically reduced his strikeouts (113 to 78), hit .321/.396/.439, stole 41 bases and scored 112 runs.

Yu Darvish, P
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
6-4, 175 pounds, age 20
He won the clinching fifth game of the 2006 Japan Series and was MVP of the 2006 Konami Cup Asia Series (a tournament featuring the club champions from Japan, Taiwan and Korea, and the Chinese national team). Tall and thin, with matinee idol good looks, he's extremely marketable. Add to that the fact that he features a low- to mid-90s fastball, a plus curve and seems, even at a very young age, to be utterly unflappable, and you have (if he's posted) the next big bidding war.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka, SS/2B
Chiba Lotte Marines
5-11, 165 pounds, age 22
He's now a slick-fielding, full-time shortstop for the Marines, but he's won a Japanese Gold Glove at second base as well. The switch-hitter's offensive numbers are thin so far, but he's just 22, and like the Mets' Jose Reyes, he ups his value with the stolen bases (33 in 2006 and 41 in 2005). It may be a while before he gets a shot to play in the major leagues, but at 21 he was a key contributor to Japan's World Baseball Classic championship, so we can all look forward to watching him tear up the next WBC in 2009, as he nears his prime.

Kazumi Saito, P
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
6-3, 220 pounds, age 29
It's this guy, not Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was the best pitcher in Japan last season, posting a 1.75 ERA over 201 innings and going 18-5. According to some close observers of the Japanese baseball scene, at age 29 he's a good bet to be posted soon, particularly if Boston's Matsuzaka experiment works out.

Kosuke Fukudome, 3B/OF
Chunichi Dragons
5-11, 188 pounds, age 29
He'll actually be 30 when the 2007 season begins, but as the defending Central League MVP and one of the few contemporary Japanese hitters with serious pop (28 and 31 HR, 103 and 104 RBI, the past two seasons), he has to be considered a hot prospect. That's especially true because he'll be a free agent after the 2007 season and has hinted strongly that he'll give it a whirl in the bigs. Even if the power numbers don't translate, expect major league teams to be very interested in an OBP north of .400 four of the last six seasons.

Yuki Saito, P
Waseda University
5-9, 154 pounds, age 18
They call him The Handkerchief Prince because as a high school senior, while pitching four complete games in four days (including a 15-inning, 1-1 tie) to lead Tokyo's Waseda Jitsugyo to the 2006 high school national championship, he repeatedly, dramatically wiped his sweaty brow with a blue, terry cloth handkerchief. Teeny-boppers pined. Middle-aged mothers swooned. Like young Elvis with the hips, he killed, and like John, Paul, George and Ringo, he became a phenomenon. But he's no flash in the pan: Mets scout Isao Ojimi calls him "a first-rate pitcher," and he seems to have the classic Japanese combination of heart, stuff and creativity on the hill. What makes him most interesting, though, is that he's gone to a university rather than play Japanese professional baseball. This means he'll be a free agent when he graduates in 2010 (no waiting to be posted), and could join a major league team at just 23, with his entire career in front of him.

Toshiaki Imae, 3B
Chiba Lotte Marines
5-10, 177 pounds, age 23
He's a tale of two seasons: In 2005, as a 21-year-old rookie given the full-time third base job, he won a Gold Glove, posted an .804 OPS, and played his way onto the World Baseball Classic roster. In 2006, he fell way off, looking lost at the plate, showing no power, and putting up a meek .267/.293/.389 overall line. He has speed (see the 60 doubles the past two years), but to play third base in the major leagues, or even in Bobby Valentine's everyday lineup for Chiba Lotte, he's hoping 2005 was the true story.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RP
Hanshin Tigers
6-1, 169 pounds, age 26
Literally born into baseball, his name means "Baseball Child," and was given to him because he was born the day after his father pitched a no-hitter in a Japanese amateur league. He throws five pitches for strikes, and in 2005, his second full season as a contributor for the Tigers, he became a dominant middle reliever, throwing 92 innings in 80 appearances, giving up just 57 hits, and posting an ERA of 1.37. The part that will make U.S. scouts salivate? His K/9 ratio was a gobsmacking 13.59. The part that will make them linger at their windows and cry, waiting for him to one day land on American shores? In 2006, he went out and proved it was no fluke, posting a tidy little 13.52 K/9.

Takashi Toritani, SS
Hanshin Tigers
6-0, 180 pounds, age 25
A superstar in both high school (at the national Koshien tournament) and college (at Waseda University, where he won the triple crown as a sophomore), he entered the Japanese professional leagues with the greatest of buzz and expectations. Many compared him to Derek Jeter, everyone raved about his capacity to perform in the clutch. So far in the pros, though, it's been a waiting game, as he's been merely steady at the plate, and a bit ragged in the field (21 errors last season for Hanshin). Local experts are split on him now: Some say it will never happen, he was just a hyped creation, while others say his breakout season is just around the corner.

Koji Uehara, P
Yomiuri Giants
6-1, 187 pounds, age 32
Too old to be considered a prospect, but he's a free agent after the 2007 season and will likely pitch in the majors in 2008. The ace of the Giants' staff, he features a great career K/BB ratio (6.50/1) and has gone 94-45 with a 2.99 ERA in seven seasons. The Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles made a play for him coming out of college, so look for them to be in the running again come this winter.

Special thanks to Mike Plugh, author of "Baseball Japan" and several other must-read blogs, Jim Allen, esteemed writer for the Yomiuri Daily and ESPN.com, and Wayne Graczyk, author of the indispensable "Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook and Media Guide."

Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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