Land of the rising stars

Daisuke Matsuzaka, a 23-year-old power pitcher, tops the list of players in Japan with potential big-league ability.

Originally Published: November 24, 2003
By Mai Yoshikawa | Special to ESPN.com

While a player is eligible to become a free agent with at least six years of experience in Major League Baseball, a player must be registered on the top-team roster for nine seasons (with one season equivalent to 150 days or more) in Japanese baseball.

If a Japanese player belonging to a professional team wants to make the move to the majors, he must wait until he can file for free agency or be put up for auction under the posting system, which sent Ichiro Suzuki to the Seattle Mariners in the 2000 offseason, by his club.

In a country where lifetime commitment to the company (team) and work-until-you-drop mentality is still considered an ethic, it may be a while until the problematic free agency system is re-evaluated and revised despite the pool of talents who have what it takes to make it in the majors.

Below are five highly sought-after Japanese ballplayers who have already etched their names among the promising stars on the scouting reports and may be making their debut on the big-league scene sooner or later.

But of course, the question of ''when'' still remains.

1. Daisuke Matsuzaka, 1999 Seibu Lions top draft pick
Becomes free agent in: Four seasons and 59 days.

Credentials: The 23-year-old right-hander, arguably the No. 1 pitcher in Japan, has to work a 10th season before he is released into the free agent market because a right elbow pain sidelined him for much of the 2002 season and limited him to six wins after posting 16, 14 and 15 in his first three years and going 16-7 in 2003.

The '99 Rookie of the Year boasts a fastball that reaches 96 mph, but there's always concern about overuse or arm fatigue as a result of his pitching 379 innings in regular-season games in high school, including a 250-pitch, 17-inning outing in the summer Koshien tournament, and 855 1/3 innings in the pros, including 240 1/3 in 2001 alone.

He revealed that he watched a video of Pedro Martinez on the eve of his Opening Day start in 2000 and when Ichiro Suzuki signed with the Seattle Mariners in November of the same year, Matsuzaka complained ''nine years (till free agency) is too long. The earlier the experience, the better.''

2. Koji Uehara, 1999 Yomiuri Giants top draft pick
Becomes free agent in: Fours seasons and 13 days.

Credentials: The 28-year-old right-hander often gets ahead on counts and is recognized for his control and stamina. He overcame a lower backache and right knee pain to lead the Central League with 11 complete games and 194 strikeouts in 2003, but also gave up the most homers with 28.

He is confident with just three types of pitches -- fastballs, splitters and cutters -- in the 90-mph range, but proved those pitches are good enough by striking out Barry Bonds three times in an exhibition game between the major-league All-Stars and the Japanese All-Stars last fall.

A true Nolan Ryan fan, Uehara hit the headlines when he kicked the mound and shed tears during a game after he fell victim to the Japanese approach to baseball and was forced to intentionally walk cleanup man Roberto Petagine with no runners on base, crushing his pride as a big-name rookie.

Uehara denied a New York Post report last month that there was a handshake agreement between him and the Yomiuri Giants allowing him to become a free agent after five years instead of the required nine, saying ''if that was the case I'd be a major-leaguer by now.''

3. Kei Igawa, 1998 Hanshin Tigers No. 2 draft pick
Becomes free agent in: Five seasons and 65 days.

Credentials: With a combination of his maximum 92-mph fastballs, curves, changeups and sliders, the 24-year-old lefty is dubbed the ''Dr. K of Japan'' with 556 strikeouts in the last three years, with the added bonus of two Central League pitching titles in wins (20) and ERA (2.80) in 2003.

After boosting his annual salary by as much as 10 times between 2001 and 2003 (now earns nearly $920,000), Igawa fanned 179 en route to winning the Sawamura Award (comparable to the Cy Young Award) this year, but also issued 58 walks for the second most in the league.

In the 2002 season, he failed to post a win for nearly two months in August and September but rebounded this time around, winning the MVP of the month in June and July and maintaining his rotation spot throughout the season to guide the Tigers to their first pennant in 18 years.

4. Kosuke Fukodome, 1999 Chunichi Dragons top draft pick
Becomes free agent in: Four seasons.

Credentials: The 26-year-old outfielder became the first high school senior to be selected as the top pick by seven teams at the amateur draft in 1995, but opted to serve three years for a corporate team rather than joining a pro team which was not of his preference.

The former shortstop and third baseman, who also has Olympic experience, continues to impress with his laser-beam throwing arm often compared to that of Ichiro's. He has a good balance of defense and speed and says ''MLB will be an option for me when the time comes because I'd rather not regret later on that I didn't take up the challenge.''

The left-handed batter denied Hideki ''Godzilla'' Matsui a triple crown in 2002 by hitting .343 -- the first time he went over. .300 -- and lived up to his mighty reputation by finishing with a .313 average in 2003 with a career-high 34 homers and a team-high 165 hits.

He is bothered by occasional pain in his lower back and elbow, but made an impact on the scouts with his athleticism as a national team member at the recent Asian Championships with his against-the-wall leaping catches and super throws from the outfield.

5. Tomohiro Nioka, 1999 Yomiuri Giants No. 2 draft pick
Becomes free agent in: Four seasons and 21 days.

Credentials: The 27-year-old shortstop brushed aside criticism that he lacked stamina and power as he not only became the sole Giant to play in all 140 games in the 2003 season, but eclipsed career highs with a .300 average, 172 hits and 29 homers.

He is a dark horse whom few consider would make the jump to the majors because he has never went public with his desire to play outside of Japan, but recently voiced his interest by saying ''I'd most definitely consider playing in the major leagues.''

He also revealed that he has never been in better shape and is ''still nowhere near the peak'' after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from a fractured left wrist in the summer of 2001 for his only major injury since making his pro debut.

His mental toughness is also an attraction as he is known to be a clutch hitter who connected for a walkoff homer to secure the Giants' Central League championship in 2000 and hit a grand slam in the Japan Series two years later to be named the MVP.

Mai Yoshikawa lives in Japan and covers sports for the International Department of Kyodo News based in Tokyo. She also served as the Japanese PA announcer for the Seattle Mariners this summer.

ALSO SEE