Kawakami heads questionable Japanese free-agent class

TOKYO -- Unlike the big-money markets for Japanese players the past two winters, this year's minor group of major candidates will not generate any shock waves.

With no stars expected to be posted this winter, just five players have stated their intent to play in the majors. Four are pitchers, including a marginal 39-year-old left-hander and small amateur right-hander Junichi Tazawa.

The safest bet in the group is Chunichi Dragons ace Kenshin Kawakami, 33. He is followed by Yomiuri Giants ace Koji Uehara, also 33, an intriguing right-hander.

"The question is how they're going to react to pitching every fifth day," said Marty Brown, who has been managing the Hiroshima Carp since 2006.

Brown lost ace Hiroki Kuroda last winter as a free agent to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the skipper had few worries about the right-hander's ability to cope after using him on four days' rest seven times in 2006.

Kuroda was 4-2 with a 2.58 ERA in those seven games on what is considered short rest for a Japanese starter. In his other games that season, he was 9-4 with a 1.58 ERA.

"Since I've been here, the biggest question [about transitioning to the United States] has not been physical, but mental," Brown said.

Like Kuroda, Kawakami is a bulldog on the mound, but the right-hander's durability became an issue after he hit the skids following a 9-1 start in 2006. His ERA jumped more than 2.5 runs after June 23 that season, and he finished 17-7.

Scouts Isao Ojimi of the New York Mets and Steve Wilson of the Chicago Cubs said Kawakami, who was 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA this season, would be a good fit in the majors as a fifth starter and will benefit from as much extra rest as he can get.

Unlike Kuroda, who put together mouth-watering ERAs despite pitching in Japan's best hitters' park, Kawakami's 3.22 career ERA was fashioned in an extreme pitchers' park with one of the country's better defensive units playing behind him.

Kawakami likely has the best cutter in Japan. Although he has exceptional control with his 92 mph fastball, it lacks movement and gets hit hard. He also has a two-seamer that runs in on right-handers, a slider and a slow curve. Kawakami experimented with a forkball this year, and his groundouts increased sharply.

Because of his tenacity and his command, Kawakami should adjust to the challenges of the majors.

Uehara, his longtime Central League rival, is a different puzzle altogether. He has a good fastball and a superb splitter and throws a decent slider that used to be very good. The Giants ace will get major league hitters out, provided he maintains his focus.

Uehara, who has a career 112-61 record with a 3.01 ERA and is a two-time winner of the Sawamura Award (for Japan's best starting pitcher), drifted through the 2008 season in unpredictable spasms.

He set the Giants' save record (32) in 2007, when leg injuries curtailed his fitness. He returned to the rotation for the 2008 season but was sent to the minors after stinking up five straight starts.

Although no injury was reported, he remained on the farm team until the end of June. Put back in the bullpen, he was ineffective until he was surprisingly named to Japan's Olympic squad.

His turnaround was instantaneous. After half a season of falling behind hitters and walking them or getting hit hard, Uehara began locating his fastball. The walks stopped, the strikeouts increased and it was business as usual.

Uehara rejoined the rotation after some solid games in Beijing and was good enough to help the Giants complete a historic comeback in the pennant race.

"He's really solid for two innings," Brown said.

But the ease with which Uehara suddenly switched on his effectiveness makes one wonder why Uehara couldn't solve his riddle before he was named to the Olympic team.

One explanation is that he might have been playing hurt early in the year with the groin and leg problems that have dogged him in recent seasons. Although Uehara ran track in high school (because his school didn't have a baseball team), he has developed a reputation as a player who doesn't like to run and whose conditioning is suspect.

Ojimi, however, believes Uehara will be more motivated from now on.

"He's wanted to pitch in the majors for many years," Ojimi said. "So I think you'll see a different Uehara."

Uehara said he was offered a deal with the Angels in 1998 but gave up when Anaheim would not promise to use him at the major league level.

Although he was the best pitcher in Japan as a rookie in 1999, nagging injuries have curtailed his mound time.

Several years ago, Uehara broke with decorum by publicly asking the ultra-conservative Giants to post him. This past spring, when he had completed the service time necessary to file for free agency, he could have said what players routinely say: "I only want to concentrate on the pennant race; I'll consider free agency when the season's over."

Instead, Uehara said his playing days in Japan would end with his current contract. His 2008 season, however, went into free fall until he found himself banished to the minors.

A decade after Uehara passed on his opportunity to be Japan's first top amateur to go directly to the U.S., that distinction now will go to corporate-league right-hander Tazawa.

Tazawa, who stands 5 feet, 10 inches -- "5-11 if you really like him," Wilson said -- will get a major league deal this winter but is unlikely to make it to the majors during that first season.

He has good command of his fastball and slurve, but he lacks velocity, stamina and the ability to keep the ball down.

The talk of a deal worth as much as $4 million is testimony not to Tazawa's talent, but to the soaring appreciation of Japan's game. Fourteen years ago, no major league club would have paid a penny for Japan's best player. Hideo Nomo changed that.

It wasn't long before the trickle of scouts flowing through Japan became a stream. Major league teams now are making high-level offers to established stars some 10 years after Nomo got it all started.

But buying established stars requires paying top dollar, and if the best Japanese amateurs are available at a tiny fraction of that price, why not go that route? Thus was born the Tazawa buzz.

The right-hander would have gone in the first round of Nippon Professional Baseball's recent draft, but that is a long way from being ready for the majors.

At 22, Tazawa is unlikely to throw much harder than he does now; his fastball barely tops 90 mph when he is rested, and he struggled to hit 88 mph at the end of last season.

In Class A or Double-A, Tazawa likely will get hit harder and harder as the season wears on.

Because he knows what he's doing against corporate league hitters here, there is a chance Tazawa will make adjustments, although Ojimi is a skeptic.

The Mets scout believes the pitcher's body is too stiff to allow him to keep the ball down in the zone and Tazawa lacks the smarts and toughness to hang in and learn the lessons needed to apply his talent in the majors.

Although Tazawa probably will not pitch at the major league level for the next few seasons, at least he will take the plunge.

Two others who have said they want to play abroad probably won't even leave Japan. Ken Takahashi, a 39-year-old southpaw starter for Brown's Carp, said he wants to play in the majors.

"I really respect him," Brown said of the pitcher who went 8-5 for a sub-.500 team with little offense that plays in a bandbox. "He's done everything I've asked him to do.

"He thinks his changeup is as good as [Hideki] Okajima's. But he doesn't get lefties out, and he can't start every fifth day."

When Kuroda became a free agent, Brown was deluged by e-mail, but as of Monday, he said he hadn't received a single one regarding Takahashi.

The final player who has considered a major league move is Yokohama BayStars catcher Ryoji Aikawa. A backup on the 2006 World Baseball Classic champion squad, Aikawa is a solid catcher who had one good year as a hitter (he batted .302 in 2007, at the age of 30). Despite playing in one of Japan's best hitters' parks, Aikawa has a career .308 on-base percentage and offers little power.

Put Aikawa in a neutral run environment in the majors, and you'd have a catcher who doesn't know opposing hitters and would struggle to hit .200.

There is almost no chance he or Takahashi will ever play in the majors.

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.