Iwamura will be in the Show in 2007
TOKYO -- This annual event has become the next biggest thing to the massive Tokyo Motor Show.
The pursuit of the newest and hottest Japanese imports kicked into gear Nov. 1, when ace pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka was put up for auction by the Seibu Lions. But only one team will land the right-hander and more quality players are prepared to take the plunge.
The next to appear on the radar screen following Matsuzaka's big coming-out party will be hard-hitting third baseman Akinori Iwamura.
The Tokyo Yakult Swallows put the the 27-year-old up for bid Nov. 6, and he has reportedly drawn interest from the Cleveland Indians, who have a long relationship with the Swallows.
Like Matsuzaka, Iwamura is a lock to cross the Pacific, while two others are still question marks.
Southpaw starter Kei Igawa will join these two if his club gives in and puts him up for auction, while lefty reliever Hideki Okajima announced Nov. 1 he would file for free agency.
Whether Okajima is interested in becoming a major leaguer, however, remains a question. There are no such doubts about Iwamura, who has been studying English for years, preparing for the day his career takes him overseas.
Iwamura has hit 106 home runs in his past three seasons for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Although a winner of five Gold Glove Awards, Iwamura quickly admits his first was a fluke: He won it in 2000 because he was the only full-time third baseman in the six-team Central League. Yet, the honor boosted his confidence, and the error-prone youngster rapidly went from prospect to standout.
As outgoing as any Japanese player, Iwamura has spent most of his time on the side of the dugout where the foreign sluggers sit, both because of his power and his desire to soak up as much English as possible.
"He hits like one of us, so he belongs over here," said outfielder Alex Ramirez, who played three seasons with the Indians and the Pirates before becoming a fixture at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium. "Actually, he's got more power. So he can sit where he wants."
Iwamura is an aggressive fielder and will need to make a number of adjustments. He plays most of his games on artificial turf and will need to find his game on grass.
The same goes for his batting. A free swinger, Iwamura's thirst for power began three seasons ago when he topped the league with 44 homers and was easily the circuit's best player, but he also led the league with a career-high 173 strikeouts in 533 at-bats. This year, his 70 walks amounted to more than half his strikeout total (128) for the first time in his career. His RBI numbers plunged to 77 from over 100 in each of his previous two seasons, largely because the Swallows' No. 2 hitter had a 39-homer season.
Given his desire and athleticism, the well-muscled Iwamura could hit 20 homers and bat .270 in his debut season with some development -- and once he learns the pitchers and refines his game.
Igawa, 27, has pestered the Hanshin Tigers for two seasons for a ticket to the majors. Although his previous pleas were met with sarcasm, the club's new ownership has softened its stance this fall.
Igawa possesses a good fastball and a first-rate changeup to go with the standard equipment: forkball, two-seamer, slider and curve. But time is not on his side. The slightly built lefty threw roughly 200 innings a year for four years before turning 24, meaning his chances for a productive career past the age of 30 are slim.
Okajima revived his status as a useful reliever with the Japan champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters this season. Okajima provided clutch pitching against Japan's toughest hitter to secure the Fighters' Japan Series title.
Teams looking for the next Takashi Saito may have their eyes on the veteran lefty. After years of getting into trouble with the command of his forkball, Okajima has developed a devastating overhand curve and could be the bargain of the bunch.
Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.
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