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Japanese High Schooler Could Start a Revolution

These are heady times. Out in the desert, a young man named Bryce Harper is working to graduate from high school a year early to become the first player to qualify for the Major League Baseball Draft after fewer than four years of high school baseball. In Washington, the Nationals have already handed out a $15 million contract to a guy (cough, Stephen Strasburg, cough) who has yet to throw a single pitch in the major -- or minor -- leagues.

Yet both of those moves may have only a fraction of the lasting Major League impact of another move, should young Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi decide to come directly to MLB.

According to the incomparable Patrick Newman at Japanese baseball site NPB Tracker, Kikuchi, an 18-year-old ace with a 94 mph fastball and at least three off-speed pitches that could develop into "plus" pitches at the major league level.

Make no mistake, Kikuchi is no sure thing. After all, he's 18 for God's sake. But this young Japanese pitcher's development does run on a strikingly similar path to those who have come before him, notably Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka and the next great posting fee bonanza-in-waiting, Yu Darvish.

Through the first nine days of Japan's annual Koshien high school baseball tournament, Kikuchi has thrown 367 pitches. His latest complete game -- a one-run, six hitter that required 125 pitches -- helped Kikuchi's Hanamaki Higashi grab another win in the annual Osaka event that is (perhaps too stereotypically) considered Japan's answer to the NCAA basketball tournament. You can watch Kikuchi's entire performance on this clip from Justin.tv.

So, why does Kikuchi's decision carry such monumental importance? Well, for one thing, coming to MLB directly from high school would bar Kikuchi from playing professionally in Japan. Because Japanese stars like Matsuzaka, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui started their careers in NPB (Japan's professional league), they are eligible to return to the league whenever their MLB careers peter out. That's not the case for any youngster who bucks the league out of high school because of a rather territorially zionistic NPB rule that bans Japanese players who start their careers overseas from coming back to the league.

That means that should Kikuchi decide to start his career in MLB, it will have to end in MLB (or the minor leagues, or the Korean leagues, or the European leagues ... you get the picture) as well. Naturally, heading to American professional baseball would signify a huge leap in terms of competitive balance for a player like Kikuchi, but it also represents a monumental shift in lifestyle.

As pitchers like Matsuzaka have learned, life in American baseball requires a vastly different (and Japanese players feel, more lackadaisical) training regimen to the one they're used to in Japan. In addition, a Japanese draft pick is likely to face adjustment to very long travel hours required in the American minor leagues, a foreign language that uses a different alphabet and the need for some kind of translator/interpreter to be with them at all time. Put it all together in a bundle, and you're facing a complex set of issues that are hard for an 18-year-old kid to swallow.

Of course, the money for a player like Kikuchi is certain to be much better in MLB than it will be in NPB. And should Kikuchi begin his career in NPB, he's assured to be locked in to somewhere between five and nine seasons in Japan before he even gets a chance to try his hand at American baseball. It's a high stakes decision with serious ramifications, both for Kikuchi and other top Japanese prospects. Boston rookie starter Junichi Tazawa may have opened the Japanese amateur pipeline by asking NPB teams not to draft him last year en route to his contract with the Red Sox (former Mariners outfielder Mac Suzuki was actually the first to start in Major League Baseball, but Tazawa is the first pitcher), but Kikuchi is the player who would be seen as a true trailblazer. While Tazawa had been identified as a major league project who was absolutely determined to head to America, Kikuchi is a budding star sitting on a fence between the potential for Japanese immortality and the chance for a productive and incredibly lucrative Major League career.

Kikuchi's decision will be eagerly tracked by the entire Japanese media, and most major league teams, as well. Newman noted scouts from the Mets and Rangers watching the teen this spring, and says that at least two major league scouts (allegedly from the Twins and Cubs though that link is in Japanese -- but comes from this English translation, again from NPB Tracker) have been observing Kikuchi at Koshien. If you think the Red Sox and Yankees won't eventually get involved in a potential Kikuchi war, you're probably kidding yourself.

The significance of a nationwide shift in young players' futures, the biggest change in lifestyle fathomable and a potential bidding war between just about every significant franchise in Major League Baseball? If that isn't the recipe for thick, thick baseball melodrama, we don't know what is.

By Cameron Smith  |  August 24, 2009; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  Japan  | Tags: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japan, Koshien Tournament, Yu Darvish, Yusei Kikuchi, draft  
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