Japanese talent pool is deep

Originally Published: December 15, 2006
By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com

TOKYO -- Japan has been spared an anxiety attack of seismic proportions now that World Baseball Classic hero Daisuke Matsuzaka has decided to pitch for the Red Sox.

The right-hander's ability to generate excitement will be exponentially greater in Boston -- in The Show -- than it has been for most of his pro career in his homeland. Fans now expect Matsuzaka to adapt, adjust and do to major league hitters what he has been doing to his countrymen since he was in his teens.

There's good reason to think Matsuzaka is capable of rising to this challenge, but while his star rises on the East Coast of the United States, a shadow is creeping over Japan's future.

As the Japanese game earns vicarious recognition through Matsuzaka, Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and others, sooner or later the sad reality will sink in that the game here is not good enough to keep them at home.

And while the posting system can provide a big payoff for Japanese clubs with high-value players, no major league team is happy with it.

In the same way major league clubs bridled at having to pay full market value for independent minor league stars, the pressure for easier access to top Japanese talent is likely to build as a result of the struggles regarding Matsuzaka's monumental deal.

A revision to the system may not be long in coming, and given the current gap in competition and economic might between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, it is unlikely to be a favorable adjustment for Japan.

But for the moment, the spotlight is on Matsuzaka.

Other pitchers have gone before him and surpassed their nation's hopes, but none have made the jump while possessing Matsuzaka's heady combination of power, poise, ability and -- most importantly -- health. Any discussion of Matsuzaka must begin with what he has that others have lacked.

The benchmark for Japanese pitching success in America remains Hideo Nomo. And though Nomo made an instant splash in the bigs, his brilliant story was just the epilogue to his career. In Nomo's first four seasons, he was arguably Japan's most dominant pitcher ever. Nomo was a legitimate major league success, but the real story is how he was able to rebuild a career after overwork shredded his shoulder.

Had Nomo been put on a shorter leash after turning pro, he might still be earning the money agent Scott Boras believes Matsuzaka deserves.

A careful comparison of their careers in Japan is enlightening. After all, when Nomo went to the majors in 1995, he was just 13 days older than Matsuzaka will be in 2007.

Nomo turned pro at 21 but faced over 34 batters per start as a rookie and was never below 30, while also leading the league in innings pitched in his first four seasons for a total of 937 1/3 innings.

By comparison, Matsuzaka's work loads have been lighter, averaging less than 29.5 batters per start, while topping 200 innings just twice.

When Nomo needed rest in his fifth season, his manager made him pitch more with his arm hanging by a thread. By contrast, Matsuzaka received some rest in 2002, when a groin injury allowed him to pitch just 73 1/3 innings at the age of 21.

A physical breakdown remains a major possibility within the next three years, but Matsuzaka is at the peak of his game now. The thought of what he's capable of doing against the world's best hitters has both Japanese fans and Red Sox Nation salivating.

And though Matsuzaka is a unique talent, his success will only increase the desire among major league teams for more of the same.

The man at the top of some major wish lists, Hiroki Kuroda, declined to file for free agency, but he should command a salary comparable to Matsuzaka's.

The right-handed ace of the Central League's bottom-feeding Hiroshima Carp is responsible for more wear and tear on infields through ground balls than any other top pitcher in Japan.

Kuroda, 31, has superb command of a heavy sinking fastball that is next to impossible to hit out of the park. With excellent location of his usual assortment of pitches, he is a finished product.

Chunichi Dragons outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, the CL's MVP this season, also will be available as a free agent within a few seasons. An extreme line-drive hitter, Fukudome is a complete package with speed, discipline, defensive range and a cannon for an arm.

Japan's best arm, however, might belong to 26-year-old reliever Kyuji Fujikawa of the Hanshin Tigers. The right-hander possesses the best fastball in the country and has struck out 261 batters (out of 655) over the past two seasons. But like all the following players on this list, Fujikawa will not be eligible for free agency for a number of years.

Munenori Kawasaki, Japan's WBC shortstop, has been building up his slight frame. A top-class fielder and slash hitter, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks star is 25 and will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season.

A player with even more potential is 22-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka of the Chiba Lotte Marines. Nishioka played out of position at second base in the WBC but was an offensive force.

Under current rules, Nishioka won't be able to go to the majors under his own power until 2014.

Center fielder Norichika Aoki of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows barely played in the WBC, but after only two years, he is one of the most electrifying players in the country. The 24-year-old has led his league in average and stolen bases, and after vowing to improve his power this season, he went from three jacks to 13.

Another pitcher who is already on the major league radar after his second season is Yu Darvish. The son of a Japanese mother and an Iranian father, the 6-foot-4, 20-year-old right-hander has superb command of an extreme assortment of pitches and a 94 mph fastball.

Although pitchers of Darvish's quality typically get overworked in Japan, Trey Hillman, his manager with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, will prevent that.

How long NPB can prevent MLB clubs from making deeper inroads into Japan's talent pool, however, is anyone's guess.

As long as NPB fails to market its superb human resources and realize the nation's amazing pro potential, stars will continue to yearn for the bigs. And unless Japan develops its competitive edge on and off the field, it will eventually have to sit back and watch all its best players on TV.

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.