5:37 PM CDT, March 16, 2013
Bud Selig would love to see a series between the World Series and Japan Series champions. But among the realities is that as problematic as that idea seems now, it might become even less viable in the future.
Major League Baseball is lowering the talent pool in Japan, two or three players at a time, and the disparity in baseball economics between the two continents suggests that the number of Japanese imports will only increase.
"If it doesn't happen soon, or something doesn't change in Japan, it's not going to work,'' Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan between stints with the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox, said of what Selig called a real World Series. "The Japanese leagues are being depleted of talent. They haven't taken care of players the way they could have.''
There are no major league players on the Japanese team that will play in the World Baseball Classic semifinal Sunday night in San Francisco that is trying to three-peat in the event. But Japan's two best pitchers, hard-throwing Masahiro Tanaka and craftsman Kenta Maeda — both of whom are only 24 — are expected to be playing for big-league teams within two years.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and the Hiroshima Carp look to cash in on Tanaka and Maeda like the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters did Yu Darvish. Tanaka, who can be a free agent in Japan after 2014, is likely to be posted next winter; Maeda, who is under Carp control in Japan through '15, is likely to be posted after '14.
It takes nine seasons for a Japanese player to reach true free agency, with the rights to come to the United States exclusive of the complicated posting process. That's the process that allowed reliever Kyuji Fujikawa to join the Cubs this spring, when infielders Hiroyuki Nakajima and Kensuke Tanaka (minor league deal) reported to the Athletics and the Giants.
"It used to be that just great Japanese players came to play here,'' Valentine said. "Now mid-level players are leaving Japan. It's not good for those leagues.''
While even high school baseball is followed religiously in Japan, professional sports aren't valued as highly in that culture as in North America. Darvish became the highest-paid player in Japan his last year with the Fighters, earning the equivalent of $6.1 million. Twenty-four MLB players earned more than $17 million last year, including 14 that earned $20-million-plus, topped by Alex Rodriguez's $30 million from the Yankees.
Agent Don Nomura has referred to the migration of players from Japan to MLB as "nature taking its course.''
Until Japanese players find their own Marvin Miller, it doesn't appear they will be valued anywhere near as highly as their North American peers. Japan has won the WBC twice and twice threatened to boycott the event the next time around, complaining about the event's compensation.
Because the event generates huge television ratings in Japan, their players union argued that Japan be allowed to control all the sponsorship and licensing revenue generated by its team rather than share it. They received some concessions from MLB, with the event doubling the number of games played in Japan, and predictably called off the boycott.
The biggest benefits, however, await Tanaka, Maeda and others who will follow them to America in the next few years.
Well built: Watch the Blue Jays for one day this spring and you know they're going to win 90-plus games and go to the playoffs. They have the AL's best roster by a tick over the Tigers and the Angels, and it goes a lot deeper than just the big guys.
When general manager Alex Anthopoulos acted on orders to go for it, he made moves of all sizes. In addition to the huge trades with the Marlins and Mets, he wisely talked left-handed reliever Darren Oliver out of retirement and signed guys like Maicer Izturis and Mark DeRosa.
Izturis is competing with Emilio Bonifacio to be the primary second baseman, with the other joining DeRosa and bases-stealing fiend Rajai Davis on the bench. DeRosa hasn't been the same since the wrist injury he suffered after the Indians traded him to the Cardinals in 2009 but is swinging the bat great this spring, hitting .500 in his first 10 games.
Pretty impressive for a guy who interviewed to be Len Kasper's color man on WGN-Ch. 9.
"I wasn't going to play just to play,'' said DeRosa, who will back up Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind at first while filling a utility role with Bonifacio. "This chance came around late, and it was the right place. If I was going to play, it was going to be if I was wanted by a team I wanted to play for. This has been great.''
Second chance: The WBC forces players close to the big leagues to make the toughest choice — leave camp to play for their countries or stick around to compete for jobs. Carlos Marmol lost the Cubs' closer's job to Kevin Gregg during his 10 days out of camp in 2009, and Jurickson Profar wasn't taking chances.
It's unlikely that the 20-year-old shortstop can win a job anyway with Elvis Andrus at short and Ian Kinsler at second for the Rangers, but Profar wanted to make an impression this spring so he said originally no thanks to joining the Netherlands.
Profar, who is hitting only .222 in 44 spring plate appearances, will play for the Netherlands, after all. He's replacing Dutch veteran Yurendell de Caster for the championship round. Word is he will play second with Jonathan Schoop moving to third base and Xander Bogaerts serving as the DH. The Dutch, who knocked Cuba out of the final round, play Tuesday against the winner of Saturday's game in Miami.
Off the tracks: How bad of a spring are the Yankees having? Bad enough that 28-year-old Cuban Triple-A player Ronnier Mustelier has put himself in competition for the opening created by Mark Teixeira's injury.
White Sox and Rays discard Dan Johnson seemed perfectly suited to hold down the fort until Teixeira's strained right wrist has healed but started the spring 1-for-23. That slump contributed to GM Brian Cashman's consideration of guys like Chipper Jones, Derrek Lee and Scott Rolen but the one real possibility is the one under the radar.
At 5 feet 7, Mustelier is truly a stealth candidate. He split last season between Double-A and Triple-A in the Yankee system, hitting .314 with 15 home runs and is called a natural-born hitter by Cashman and hitting coach Kevin Long.
"This kid's going to hit, you can see that," Long said. "The ability is there."
Mustelier was viewed mainly as an outfielder coming into camp but last week was working at third base, where he played in Cuba. If he can be adequate defensively the Yankees could move Kevin Youkilis to first until Teixeira gets back. Youkilis was signed only because Rodriguez could miss the season after hip surgery. The Yankees are also without Curtis Granderson, who had his right forearm broken by a pitch.
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