For the first time in the AFL's 17-year history, players from teams outside of Major League Baseball have been invited to participate in the circuit. Nippon Professional Baseball, the Major Leagues in Japan, agreed to send five pitchers to participate in the league, which kicks off season No. 18 on Tuesday.
"It's kind of exciting," Arizona Fall League director Steve Cobb said. "I don't know what to expect, but I'm confident they're talented pitchers. That's what I'm hearing from pitching coaches, that they bring something to the table."
Two pitchers -- Hiroshi Katayama and Toshiyuki Yanuki -- will pitch for the Desert Dogs. Three others -- Tooru Murata, Ken Nishimura and Takanobu Tsujiuchi -- are on Scottsdale's roster. Katayama has the most experience, with 79 big league innings with the Rakuten Golden Eagles under his belt. The 21-year-old lefty has a fastball in the 88-91 mph range and a curve that has the chance to be at least an average offering.
Very young when seen in 2008, Katayama showed a changeup as well, but it needed work. He flashed two- and four-seam fastballs, with some cut action on his glove side. He also showed glimpses of a cutter or slider, thrown at 84-85 mph. Scouts liked what they saw in his willingness to pitch inside to right-handed hitters, and though he needed to work on his composure, the thought was he was worth following.
The only other pitcher with big league experience is Nishimura, a 22-year-old right-hander. He got eight innings of work and was a fourth-round pick by the Hanshin Tigers this past year. In a brief look, scouts saw a smaller-framed pitcher who threw a straight fastball, 88-89 mph, while showing a curve, slider and a split-fingered fastball. His secondary pitches needed work.
But that, after all, is what the Arizona Fall League is all about -- development. These five pitchers are prospects just like the MLB-affiliated Minor Leaguers who will be competing, hoping to hone their craft in order to become Major League contributors. In the past, such young arms might play for a Hawaii Winter Baseball team, but with that circuit no longer in existence, there was an opportunity to try something new.
"We at Major League Baseball know and appreciate what a great player development tool the Arizona Fall League is," said MLB vice president of baseball operations and administration Ed Burns, who was instrumental in this ground-breaking concept. "We would like to spread the good news internationally. We have a good relationship with the commissioner's office in Japan and have great respect for their talent, as their performance in the World Baseball Classic showed.
"NPB sent players happily to [Hawaii Winter Baseball], where they participated with Major League prospects at a younger level. They were quite happy with the development opportunities that provided. That wasn't an option, so we took the opportunity to explore whether they might be interested in sending their players to play with us in the AFL. They surveyed their 12 major league clubs to see if there was interest. Happily for us, they were interested in sending some of their prospect pitchers with the same goals our clubs have."
Before people think this is some kind of outsourcing issue, it's important to note this quintet of pitchers is not taking jobs away from any Major league prospects. Typically, Major League organizations are not eager to send their top pitching talent to the AFL. So when Burns and MLB put out feelers to clubs to see if some might be willing to send one pitcher less than usual, there were some takers.
"As it turned out, all the interest in Japan was with pitchers," Burns said. "It turned out to be a nice opportunity to send some quality arms and it dovetailed nicely with MLB club goals and objectives. They were able to send what they wanted without struggling to send someone they were less interested in sending."
Where this trial run leads is anyone's guess, but both Burns and Cobb are hopeful it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the NPB and the AFL. Burns was a little more cautious, but he's optimistic this could lead to more opportunities.
"I think it's probably too early to say what this might lead to in the future," Burns said. "I think we have an open mind to inviting greater participation. We hope these players have a good experience and that it will help them develop in such a way that the clubs would be interested in greater participation going forward."
While Cobb also admits it remains to be seen what might unfold, he was willing to allow a little more wishful thinking about what direction this might head, either with the AFL or in the junior league that could be up and running in 2010.
"I would hope it would open the door for more like this," Cobb said. "I would love it to lead to a team solely from Nippon Professional Baseball, kind of like how we do it with MLB clubs, either in the AFL or another league that we will operate."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.