<
>

Top Japanese players

Last year's Central League (CL) Champion the Hanshin Tigers, and the Yomiuri Giants, a team like the New York Yankees of Japan, will face the Devil Rays and the Yankees in exhibition games on Sunday and Monday in Tokyo.

It will be just a friendly match for most players, but it could be very serious for some Japanese players who are looking for opportunities to play on U.S. teams in the near future.

Those players' thinking will be something along the lines of: "What can I do at this level? What can I show them."

It'll be easy to read their minds, especially when they play in front of such respected managers like the Yankees' Joe Torre and Devil Rays' Lou Piniella.

A couple years ago, Kazuo Matsui impressed then-San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker in an exhibition game between the major-league All-Stars and the Japanese All-Stars. That's when major league scouts started to pay attention to him.

Here's a list of the top Japanese players from each team.

Hanshin Tigers
Kei Igawa, pitcher
Arguably, he is the best left-hander at this moment in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).

He had a 20-5 record last season, which was the best in the Central League, and his 2.80 ERA was also tops in the CL.

For his efforts, he won both the MVP and the Sawamura Award, which is considered the Cy Young Award of Japan.

He has a fastball in the low-90s and one of the game's best changeups.

He worked out in the United States during this past offseason, and learned a new training system. In addition, he says he is very interested in abdominal breathing of Yoga which would improve his mental strength and focus.

He needs more than five seasons to become a free-agent, but it is believed that he would be ready in a few years.

Now, there is a question. Can he wait?

Takashi Toritani, shortstop
He is a rookie. He hasn't proved anything yet. However, he is one of the top prospects in NPB, and even considered the future of the Tigers already.

He is expected to be a great shortstop with range, a strong arm and quickness. However, his offensive impact will be higher than that.

In his college sophomore season, he won a triple crown in the Roku-daigaku (Big Six) league, the most prestigious college conference in Japan, and added another batting title just before graduating from Waseda University.

He's expected to be a top player for the Tigers sooner or later.

Norihiro Akahosihi, center fielder and Makoto Imaoka, infielder
Possessing tremendous speed, Akahoshi stole 61 bases last year and won his third stolen-base title.

He reminds some people of Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre. Like Pierre, he puts constant pressure on the defense with his speed, and creates havoc when on the bases.

Defensively, he did a marvelous job covering Koshien stadium's center-field expanse and earned his second Golden Glove Award.

Imaoka is the team captain of the Tigers. Last season, he won the batting title with .340 average and also won a Golden Glove Award.

Yomiuri Giants
Koji Uehara, pitcher
The two-time Sawamura Award (Cy Yong) winner is recognized as the ace of the Giants' pitching staff. Since he joined the team five years ago, he's won 75 games and hasn't lost more than seven games in any one season. With a lively low-90s fastball mixed with cutters and splitters, he dominates the CL and is expected to pitch for Japan's Olympic team.

His league-high 11 complete games proved his stamina and the potential to play 162 games in the majors.

He hasn't hesitated to speak out about a desire to play in the U.S. He has been counting his years to be a free-agent since he came into the league. But, he needs five more seasons before he can become a free agent. It's believed he's physically and mentally ready.

Hiroshi Kisanuki, pitcher
The second year left-hander was named Rookie of the Year in the CL last season.

He throws a fastball in the mid-90s and has a very good slider and forkball when his delivery is smooth. He looks skinny, but he proved he has the stamina to finish games as he had seven complete games. If he displays more confidence in his stuff, he may break through to the next level, which could mean the big leagues.

Yoshinobu Takahashi, right fielder
His .306 career batting average may put him in the cleanup spot in the Giants' batting order this season. In Japan, the No. 4 spot in the order is given to the best slugger on the team as a honor, especially for the Giants.

Looking back at the Giants' history, there are so many great names on the list such as Shigeo Nagashima who is a legend in NPB, Sadaharu Oh who holds the world record with 868 homers in 22 seasons, and, of course, Hideki Matsui is one of them.

Masayoshi Niwa lives in Seattle and covers baseball for Sports Yeah! magazine, Major.jp, Nikkei Shinbun, which are all based in Tokyo.