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Japan offers rewards, with risk

Japan offers rewards, with risk

Daisuke Matsuzaka: Hideo Nomo, or Hideki Irabu?

The Boston Red Sox are literally betting a bundle that the accomplished right-handed Seibu ace will be more Nomomania than Irabugate.

And Akinori Iwamura, the Yakult third baseman whose Major League negotiating fate is expected to be clarified Thursday: Tadahito Iguchi, or Norihiro Nakamura?

Some Major League team looking for some big numbers from the hot corner will step up with big numbers of its own, hoping that Iwamura is more fact than fancy.

As you can infer from just these two examples of contrasts, MLB clubs open the vault with a gulp in their throats when offered a chance to sign away Japanese headliners. They just don't know what they are buying.

A rare opportunity to enlist a proven player, shaped by Japan's mythical culture of discipline and fundamentals, at the peak of his game? Or a rash grab based on judgment, occasionally faulty?

In the short span of a dozen years since Nomo opened the gates to Japan's wealth of talent with the Dodgers in 1995, MLB has certainly showcased big hits and bigger misses from the Far East. But there is no question that the assimilation of Japanese players into the Majors has been a success, and it is now complete.

Nomo and other pioneers in his footsteps generally were regarded as "experiments," investigations into whether Japanese stars could cut it in the bigs. Such clinical terms no longer apply; you're either good enough or you're not, just like a freckle-faced draft pick from the heartland.

And you are no longer a novelty. Headliners have already come and gone (Nomo, standout closer Kazuhiro Sasaki) but Major League box scores last season alone included 10 different sons of Japan.

The bottom line provides compelling evidence of how central Japanese imports have become: The past five World Series have had a Japanese presence, starting with Tsyoshi Shinjo (2002 Giants), Hideki Matsui (2003 Yankees) and So Taguchi (2004 Cardinals) to Iguchi (2005 White Sox) and Taguchi (2006 Cardinals) again.

Interestingly, none of those players hit the big leagues through the posting process that has been so much in the news recently, with the negotiating rights to Matsuzaka and Iwamura going up for bids.

That system overall has played a minor role in the proliferation of Japanese players in the Majors, most of whom had already put in 10 Japan League seasons to become unrestricted free agents.

Matsuzaka and Iwamura brought to 11 the total number of players who have gone through the posting process. (Current Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka has gone through it twice, the only player to have done so.) Of the previous nine, three went unclaimed and three others never reached the Majors.

The unrivaled success story of the posting process is Ichiro, and the chief big-league beneficiary of the Japan talent pipeline has been his team. The Seattle Mariners have featured other Japanese icons such as Sasaki, relievers Mac Suzuki and Shigetoshi Hasagawa, and current catcher Kenji Johjima -- but Ichiro was the only one for whom they had to compete in the posting process.

Absolutely on the other side of the Seattle coin have been the New York Mets, whose frequent stabs for a Japanese influence have all ended badly. Kaz Matsui, Masato Yoshii, Kazuhisa Ishii and Tsuyoshi Shinjo have all passed through Flushing -- none with distinction.

The Mariners' November 2000 bid of $13,125,000 for Ichiro's negotiating rights was the record until shattered in Bob Beamon-esque fashion by the Red Sox's play for Matsuzaka.

Then-Seattle GM Pat Gillick could not have been more prescient in digging deep for Ichiro. But attracting a high bid doesn't guarantee greatness. As if to again illustrate the risks involved, the heretofore second-highest finances for a posted player involved Ishii, the left-hander who elicited a bid of $11,260,000 in January 2002, then signed a four-year, $12.3 million deal with the Dodgers. He won 39 games the next four seasons -- going 3-9 with the Mets in 2005 -- before vanishing from the Major Leagues in 2006.

It is refreshing to realize that Matsuzaka and Iwamura, regardless of how they fare in the Majors, will add to a Japanese body of big-league work that is already sufficient enough to yield both Booms and Busts.

TOP 5 BOOMS
1. Ichiro Suzuki (posted, 2000): He may not have literally batted 1.000, although some weeks he appears to, but the self-proclaimed baseball rock star has performed 1.000. The outfielder has collected six All-Star selections, six 200-plus-hit seasons, six seasons of 100-plus runs and 30-plus steals and six Gold Gloves.

2. Hideo Nomo (free agent, 1995): His daring leap started it all. But beyond that, he was a terrific pitcher. He walked away with the 1995 Rookie of the Year Award after going 13-6 with 236 strikeouts in 191 innings. Nomo won 43 games his first three seasons, before the heavy Japanese workload from which he fled began to take its toll.

3. Hideki Matsui (free agent, 2003): The first power hitter from Japan. Before a wrist injury cost him most of 2006, he proved that power translates. Fundamentally perfect, tireless, with a swing to die for.

4. Tadahito Iguchi (free agent, 2005): Being called "our MVP" by the manager of the World Series champion White Sox should suffice. But Iguchi, given that prop last year by Ozzie Guillen, brings so much more, including unexpected power and great little-ball instincts.

5. Shigetoshi Hasegawa (free agent, 1997): The first reliever from Japan, condemning him to being eclipsed by Nomo. Being a middle reliever further cast him in shadows. But "Shigi" excelled for nine seasons, with a 3.71 ERA over 517 career appearances.

Honorable mention. Kazuhiro Sasaki (free agent, 1999): With cold efficiency, he posted 129 saves in four seasons through 2003, before becoming homesick and returning to Japan.

TOP 5 BUSTS
1. Norihiro Nakamura (posted, 2005): He was all but signed with the Mets in 2003 but backed out of the deal. A year later, the third baseman signed with the Dodgers as a replacement for Adrian Beltre -- and went 5-for-39 in 17 games before fading away.

2. Kaz Matsui (free agent, 2002): In retrospect, the scouting reports that built him up as being faster than Ichiro and able to cover more ground than a tarp were absurd. He simply was not that player, and New York never forgave him.

3. Kazuhisa Ishii (posted 2002): The left-hander actually bid good-bye to the Majors with a winning record (39-34), but he could not live up to the expectations raised by the Dodgers' steep investment. The Mets' Japanese Jinx finished him off in 2005, when he went 3-9 in New York after having gone a solid 36-25 in three Los Angeles seasons.

4. Masato Yoshii (free agent 1998): His big-league career began with much promise when he posted a 3.93 ERA in 29 starts for the 1998 Mets, but ended four years later with a 32-47 record.

5. Hideki Irabu (free agent, 1997): He refused to sign with San Diego after the Padres purchased his contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines, forcing a trade to the Yankees. In three seasons in the Bronx, Irabu picked up 29 wins and, well, a lot of weight. But his big-league career, which ended two years later, consisted of a 34-35 record and a 5.15 ERA.

Dishonorable mention. Tsuyoshi Shinjo (free agent, 2000) He had all the pizzazz, including purple hair, to take New York but little of the talent. He hit .193 in 62 games for the Mets in 2003, then went back to being a Nippon Ham Fighter.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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