Commentary

Amateur Tazawa bypassing Japan leagues for MLB

Updated: September 12, 2008, 3:51 PM ET
By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com

TOKYO -- The other shoe finally dropped.

Since 1995, when veteran pitcher Hideo Nomo fled Japan for the majors, it was only a matter of time before a top-level amateur prospect shunned Japanese pro ball altogether.

That time is now. On Thursday, pitcher Junichi Tazawa announced he would ignore Japan and focus on a career in the majors.

[+] EnlargeJunichi Tazawa
Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty ImagesJunichi Tazawa, a 5-foot-11 right-hander, has already drawn interest from several major league teams.

"I feel strongly that the best course is to test myself in America," Tazawa told a packed press conference in Tokyo.

Tazawa, who plays for corporate league club Eneos, was the MVP of the prestigious corporate league Intercity Championship. Starting and relieving, the 22-year-old struck out 36 batters in 28 1/3 innings, and went 4-0 with one shutout.

Eneos manager Hideaki Okubo acknowledged that several major league teams have shown interest in his star, who also starred for Japan in November's World Cup.

"At the very least, five teams have been coming around," Okubo said.

The Nikkan Sports' Friday edition reported that scouts from the New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers have been following Tazawa. The paper also said the Boston Red Sox observed him at a March tournament, during which Tazawa struck out 18 batters in one game and was named tourney MVP.

The pitcher's decision sent shock waves through a pro establishment that is already reeling from the losses of its most valuable veterans.

Although Nippon Professional Baseball has no right to prevent amateurs from going abroad, major league clubs have, with one exception, refrained from pursuing top prospects. Tazawa's announcement prompted an emergency meeting of representatives from NPB's 12 teams. Two of the teams have not ruled out the possibility of drafting Tazawa against his wishes, a move that would force interested MLB teams to break with custom and compete openly with a domestic club.

"I can't say where we will go with this, but we are a team that might select him," said Toshi Shimada, an executive of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Tazawa's hometown team, the Yokohama BayStars, admitted they too have not given up on the pitcher.

This is the kind of trouble, however, that Okubo is hoping to avoid. The manager wanted Tazawa to quickly go public with his decision so Japanese teams would not get their hopes up, only to be rejected.

Japanese pitchers in MLB

The following have pitched in the major leagues in 2008:

PITCHER TEAM
Kazuo Fukumori Rangers
Kei Igawa Yankees
Masa Kobayashi Indians
Hiroki Kuroda Dodgers
Daisuke Matsuzaka Red Sox
Hideo Nomo Royals
Hideki Okajima Red Sox
Takashi Saito Dodgers
Keiichi Yabu Giants
Yasuhiko Yabuta Royals

"Out of our respect for Japanese teams, and our desire to not disrupt the draft process, we wanted to make this announcement as early as possible," Okubo said.

The manager said the player would remain with Eneos until Jan. 31, the last day Japanese teams are able to negotiate with this year's draft choices.

"I don't want this to be an obstacle to Eneos players who want to turn pro in Japan in the future," Okubo said. "I want to avoid a case where NPB teams won't want Eneos players."

While Tazawa was expected to be a top pick in Japan, not all the MLB scouts who've seen him are sold on the pitcher's future.

"His fastball is 88 to 93 [mph]," said a scout for one team who declined to be named. "He has a forkball, a curve, but the command of his fastball is so-so. His lower body is stiff."

Although Japanese teams can have extremely good access to domestic amateur players here, this issue is spurring talk of restricting access by foreign scouts.

"The periods when Japanese scouts can talk to players is fixed, but there are no such rules restricting MLB scouts," Yomiuri Giants executive Hidetoshi Kiyotake said, according to the Asahi Shimbun. "Obviously, we must avoid being at a disadvantage."

Yoshinobu Suzuki, vice president of the Japanese Baseball Federation, said Tazawa and Eneos are within their rights to ignore Japan's draft.

"He's an adult," Suzuki told the Asahi. "All that matters is his opinion and the stance of his company.

"Still, it has always been expected that players would turn pro in Japan."

Tazawa's desire will change that, 10 years after another player nearly came close to shattering the mold.

In 1998, the Anaheim Angels made a strong bid for pitcher Koji Uehara. The right-hander instead became Central League rookie of the year in 1999 with Yomiuri and eventually the Giants' ace.

If I were to turn pro in Japan, it is very possible that I would end up playing out my career here. I think there is a lot of hardship ahead over [in the U.S.], but I want to learn that there."

--Junichi Tazawa

However, Uehara has set his sights once more on the majors. For several seasons, he has gone public with his desire to be posted -- an unpopular stance on a team vehemently opposed to the posting system.

Although he is eligible for free agency this fall and has already stated his desire to exercise his rights and go abroad, none of that mattered to Uehara in 1999. He just wanted to play.

"You sign on for a long time here, but I couldn't think that far ahead," Uehara said.

"I really wanted to play at the top level right away, and the team over there only promised I would start at Double-A."

Although NPB clubs will occasionally promise an amateur a spot on their active major league rosters, another reason Japanese amateurs rarely turn away from NPB is security. Every minor league player on a 70-man roster earns a minimum of around $40,000 a year, while young players are housed and fed in team dormitories.

"I was familiar with the tough living conditions minor leaguers face in America, but that didn't bother me too much," Uehara said.

"A bigger issue was my English. In the end, I just wasn't confident I could make the transition to life over there."

Now, another young man finds himself with a similar choice, but staying in Japan does not appear to be an option for Tazawa.

"I am anxious about a lot of things, but I want to try this," he said. "I don't know if I would call myself confident.

"If I were to turn pro in Japan, it is very possible that I would end up playing out my career here. I think there is a lot of hardship ahead over there [in the U.S.], but I want to learn that there."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.