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When Will the Nats Connect in Japan?

Over at Baseball Insider a couple of days ago, I wrote about the Orioles' signing of Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara and noted the following:

It also is worth mentioning the Orioles have now beaten their regional rival, the Washington Nationals, into the potentially lucrative Japanese market, despite the latter's obvious advantages in terms of population and international cache. (The Nationals did employee a Japanese pitcher, Tomo Ohka, in 2005, but he was inherited when the team moved from Montreal and lasted only two months in Washington. The Nationals also signed pitcher Katsuhiko Maekawa last winter, but legal problems in Japan prevented him from getting a U.S. work visa.)

As I watched the news conference, noting the roughly two dozen media members from Japanese news outlets, I couldn't help wondering why this was taking place in the Warehouse at Camden Yards, instead of down the Parkway a bit at Nationals Park. To phrase the question another way: When are the Nationals going to make in-roads in Japan?

Let's examine this further.


The Nationals' ownership, particularly Stan Kasten, has been touting its intentions to expand the franchise's international reach, with Japan being one stated target. Kasten and others have spoken of making the most of Washington's international status by visiting embassies and building relationships with ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries, and the team has hosted many of these officials at Nationals Park. (In fact, Kasten says he is "good friends" with Ryozo Cato, the former Japanese ambassador to the U.S. who is now commissioner of the Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan's major leagues.)

With that in mind, after Uehara's news conference in Baltimore, I called Kasten to ask where the Nationals stand in their pursuit of Japanese talent.

"We are aware of players there. We do scout over there," Kasten said. "This year there just wasn't anything that fit with exactly what we neded."

Kasten added the inherent risk in signing free agents is even more acute with Japanese players, about whom less it known.

"It's very tricky," he said, "particularly with pitchers. They are so risky -- and that's true of free agent pitchers in general. That's why we spend so much time and energy growing our own. But we're definitely on top of everything there. It's just a matter of being the right fit for us."

Now, I'm not saying the Nationals ought to throw money at any random Japanese player just so they can say they finally signed one. But in the case of Uehara, what was it about a 33-year-old, highly decorated right-hander whose contract (two years, $10 million from the Orioles) holds little risk and the potential for great reward, that did not fit the Nationals' needs?

(The potential for expanding the Nationals' brand in Japan was huge in the case of Uehara. I was surprised to learn from a Japanese reporter, Gaku Tashiro of the all-sports daily Sankei Sports, that Uehara's popularity in Japan rivals that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, owing primarily to the fact Uehara was the star pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants, who are akin to the New York Yankees here. Uehara's signing with the Orioles was front-page news for Sankei Sports for three straight days.)

According to Uehara's agent, Mark Pieper, the Nationals were never involved in the bidding.

"I understand, if you haven't scouted well enough [in Japan], even if the guy is highly decorated, you can't just throw a multi-million-dollar offer on the table," Pieper said, not singling out the Nationals. "And some of the teams that have huge needs for starting pitching, rightly or wrongly, haven't invested there yet and don't know the players as well."

Pieper made it sound as if Uehara would have been highly intrigued by Washington, and in fact, after signing with Baltimore, he initially searched for places to live near Washington before deciding it didn't make sense for him to do so.

"If you're asking me whether a team like the Nationals, with that kind of city -- the international culture, the embassy, and everything else -- should [have a greater presence] overseas, in my opinion, sure," Pieper said. "But that's not for me to say. You would certainly have no problem attracting Japanese people to that city."

So let's throw this out for discussion here: Does it bother you that the Nationals have not established a greater presence in the Japanese talent market?

By Dave Sheinin  |  January 16, 2009; 10:02 AM ET
 
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Comments

"We are aware of players there. We do scout over there," Kasten said. "This year there just wasn't anything that fit with exactly what we needed."

Kasten is a buffoon if he wants us to believe that there is nobody in Japan who could help improve the 102 loss Nats, Stan does better when he's not available for comment.

Posted by: PowerBoater69 | January 16, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

It disappoints me that the Nationals have not done more to establish a presence in Japan. But it should be expanded to a minimal presence practically anywhere internationally. In the past, Kasten has cited the opportunities for the Nationals to make themselves an international brand given their home in the DC.

Since then ...

They sent a scout (Bill Singer) over to scout the Pacific Rim. I know they had people at the Olympics in China. But we have never heard their names associated with any players from the Pacific Rim (save the one Japanese reliever who could not get a work visa last year IIRC).

The Nationals have signed one Latin American player to a six-figure plus bonus (Smiley Gonzalez). Now, that's not to say the Nationals have to sign huge contracts every season, it's more the fact that they are never mentioned as part of the process. The FBI/MLB investigations have certainly played a role (Kasten has even said as much), but it's still not what fans would have hoped to see.

Their name has not been mentioned regarding any of the defecting Cuban players along with players from Japan. There have been young players available from both places.

Posted by: Brian_ | January 16, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I don't know how much of an effort they put into international scouting, but one thing is for sure - it is hard to believe they believe there aren't better players on this planet then the guys they are trotting out onto the field right now.

Posted by: SCNatsFan | January 16, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Three words...It...Costs...Money.

Posted by: leetee1955 | January 16, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Without casting aspersions on why they have not signed a Japanese Player to date, I will say that I am eager for them to do so. There have been some notable players - Ichiro, Matsuzaka, Saito, Nomo, and Matsui among others - who have had great success, and there have been several others who have failed. I particularly like the Rays player, Iwamurra, and wish we could add a player like him. I think the Rays are a good model - a multinational, smaller market approach that has netted key players from all corners - Australia, Japan, and Latin America. I'm a little less enthused about the Pirates approach which has netted them two very fine Cricket players from India.

Posted by: natbisquit | January 16, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

To me, this is one of the most disappointing and underdeveloped aspects of "The Plan."(tm) The key quote (and good work Dave on this piece) is "if you haven't scouted well enough [in Japan], even if the guy is highly decorated, you can't just throw a multi-million-dollar offer on the table..." and clearly, the Nats haven't scouted hardly at all.

As for the "it costs money" argument, sure, but there's no reason that the Nats shouldn't look at Asian scouting as a potential profit center - whether or not Uehara actually helps the O's win games, he has already generated millions in free publicity (and follow on brand recognition) in Japan. A signing like this could have been turned into a PR and money-making bonanza for the Nats - working with Japanese travel agencies to bring tourists to DC in the spring to see cherry blossoms and to see a game that Uehara starts in the home park, selling Uehara jerseys, etc.

The most disappointing part of this to me isn't the potential lost talent on the MLB ballclub (though that's certainly an issue too), it's the fundamental lack of imagination shown and opportunities lost to increase the brand and be seen as a major-league (pun intended) player. And not just in Japan - there are Chinese baseball leagues both on the mainland and in Taiwan and Korean baseball leagues -signing or even just scouting players there aggressively would also lead to significant opportunities to grow brand awareness and sell hats, jerseys, etc.

At the farther end, you could even begin to develop relations with some of those teams - work with the Beijing Tigers and governments on both sides to have them come in and play an exhibition series against the P-Nats and send the P-Nats over there. Yes, it all costs money, but the return on the investment would be worth it and apparently hasn't even been considered by the Nats brass. It's an inherent advantage to playing the nation's pastime in the nation's capital and the Nats have thus far just squandered it.

Posted by: Highway295Revisited | January 16, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I do like the idea of international signings (i.e., not only Japanese players) should they find the right player.

hmmm, would it count if we brought back Rick Short? Oh. Never mind.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | January 16, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

At first blush it doesn't bother me that the Nats didn't go after a 33-year-old. If he'd been under 30 I might be more distressed.

Posted by: Hendo1 | January 16, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

"If he'd been under 30 I might be more distressed"

I give you, Junichi Tazawa (http://www.japaneseballplayers.com/en/player.php?id=jtazawa). The 22-year old signed with the Red Sox for $3M over three years

Posted by: Brian_ | January 16, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I have tremendous skepticism about what the Nats are doing internationally. I'll give them some credit for their Dominican academy, but that is hardly pushing the envelope.

Japanese relievers have a pretty good success rate in MLB, at least for a year or two. Yes there were two busts last year (Yabuta and the guy the Pirates brought over), but generally these guys can get by on a deceptive motion, unusual sink even if they can't hit mid 90s. Japanese starters have been more of a mixed bag.

Nevertheless, a pitcher like Uehara can lead to further success down the road in player development. Dice-K is the primary reason Tazawa signed with the Red Sox for less money than other teams had offered.

I'm not sure you need to bird dog players in the bushes of Japan in order to know who to scout. There are sites like NPBTracker that can help you sort through who to look at. It's not like Japanese baseball teams games are not broadcast. You can do video work in a room on South Capitol Street without having to pay anything. Also, a team can know which players are going to be free agents and do things like clock a hitter's speed to first. It might take a bit of effort, but radar readings on pitchers can be converted from KPH to MPH. Finally, there are Americans in Japan who have a success record for tracking and projecting players, like Mike Pagliarulo did for years. With this sort of sorting, you maybe don't even need a full-time scout.

I'm more inclined to think lack of effort than a careful reasoned judgment is behind the failures with Japan in particular.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | January 16, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

The four greatest words ever written on NJ:
"Let's examine this further."

Posted by: JohninMpls | January 16, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

JMpls, those are indeed four great words. But there are three other words associated with this post that I found of nearly equal interest: "Meet Japanese Brides." If anyone would like to examine that further, see japancupid.com in the google ads below!

Posted by: BobLHead | January 16, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Hey, if you guys want a Japanese pitcher so bad I'll bet the Nats could get Kei Igawa for a sushi roll right now.

And please to be telling me what Japanese FA the Nats should have signed (assuming Dice K's $100m price tag made him a non-starter)?

Fukudome? Think the Cubs are happy they have $20m and two years left on that deal?

Kill them for not being a player internationally. That is a real failure of the FO. You can add talent and all it costs is Uncle Ted's money.

Posted by: traderkirk | January 16, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

"I'm not sure you need to bird dog players in the bushes of Japan in order to know who to scout. yada yada yada With this sort of sorting, you maybe don't even need a full-time scout."

"I'm more inclined to think lack of effort than a careful reasoned judgment is behind the failures with Japan in particular."

Gee, you've just tarred the Nationals with the same broad and wholly unfair brush that GEICO used to tar an entire race of cavemen. The Nats should be just as insulted by this as the GEICO Caveman, if not moreso. And yet, you also seem to think that the potential returns from Japan aren't all that great either. Relief pitchers that are good for a year or so until the league figures them out. Starting pitchers with some potential upside, if all works out and the starts align. And (although you didn't mention this one) all the singles hitters a team can stand. Tell me, haven't the Nats already had all this during their time in DC, without ever having set foot in Japan?

Posted by: nunof1 | January 16, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Do you really expect tightwads like the Lerners to pay for plane tickets to Japan? It's a shame Selig chose them over Malek.

Posted by: logan9 | January 16, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

"Does it bother you that the Nationals have not established a greater presence in the Japanese talent market?"

*******************
Well, now it kinda does, after reading this.

Posted by: NatsNut | January 16, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Why is it assumed that Uehara will be a good pitcher at the MLB level?

The tone of the article is that the Post is piling on the Nats for not signing a Japanese pitcher. Well, 29 other teams didn't sign Uehara. Uehara's numbers as a starter through the 2006 season look pretty solid. Then in 2007 he made 55 appearance - why was he move to the bullpen. And in 2008 it was 26 appearances and 89 2/3 innings. So, in 2008, he was the long man out of the pen? I thought the Japanese leagues bought American mop up men, not the the way around...

Posted by: comish4lif | January 16, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

There are 16 Japanese players currently under MLB contract including

Fukadome, Cubs
Suzuki, Mariners
Johjima, Mariners
Iwamurra, Rays
H.Matsui, Yankees
K.Matsui, Astros
Kobuyashi, Indians
Kuroda, Dodgers
Matsuzaka, Red Sox
Okajima, Red Sox
Saito, Red Sox
Yabu, Giants
Yabuto, ROyals
Uehara, Orioles
Kawakami, Braves
Tazawa, Red Sox

Plus 2 Free Agents
Iguchi
Taguchi

And one significant minor leaguer
Igawa, Yankees

So, that's enough to suggest that the Nationals are squarely in the middle of the pack of teams that have not made a move and that there is a significant market of talented players to pursue.

Posted by: natbisquit | January 16, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I also strongly endorse the idea of signing on a Japanese player for the recognition effect. It is interesting to see coverage of MLB on the television in Asia - Japanese coverage but rebroadcast elsewhere - they will show highlights of games that feature action by the Japanese player, regardless of the outcome of the game, and when a full game is shown it seems they spend the time in between innings reviewing how that player performed in the last inning. Think of all the Japanese visitors who come to Washington to see the cherry blossoms - I can see curly W's taking over Asia, after they have also come to see the trees and "their" player at Nats Park.

Posted by: Traveler8 | January 16, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

There are a few Yankee blogs out there saying that the Yankees should consider moving Xavier Nady (or possibly Nick Swisher) to the Nationals. One articles says they should get Milledge in return and the other says they should get Dukes. Are all Yankee fans this dillusional?

Posted by: NeedANatsFix | January 16, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

"This year there just wasn't anything that fit with exactly what we needed."

What player fits with the Nats identity? Maekawa? His visa was denied b/c of a hit-and-run accident a few years ago.

I guess Maekawa would have fit right in with the Nats:
GM Jimbo - DUI
Olsen - DUI, resisting an officer with violence and fleeing and eluding an officer
Dimitri...
Elijah...

Posted by: jctichen | January 16, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Here's a scouting report on Koji Uehara by Mike Plugh at Baseball Prospectus from November:

"He is currently 33 years old, and perhaps his best days are well behind him, but overall he ranks directly behind Matsuzaka in terms of recent Japanese baseball history. Uehara is a control pitcher with a freakishly good BB/K ratio, and figures to be something in the neighborhood of a good second starter in the NL, or a fair third starter in the AL. I'd say he's the only Japanese free agent worth spending any kind of major money on this season."

Sounds like it could be a nice signing by the O's. Of course, the performance of established Japanese players in MLB has been no sure thing.

Posted by: NattyFan | January 16, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Yankee fans are delusional. It's the money that does it to them. They get used to buying whatever they want.

Posted by: comish4lif | January 16, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Traveler8 wrote: "Think of all the Japanese visitors who come to Washington to see the cherry blossoms - I can see curly W's taking over Asia, after they have also come to see the trees and "their" player at Nats Park."

And in so doing, made my point much better than I did. There are lots of reasons beyond Ws and Ls to expand into the Asian market, especially as the team in the nations capital. For 2006 - the last year for which my googling could produce statistics, something like 4 million Japanese people visited the US. Considering DC is the #3 most visited US tourist destination according to Forbes,(behind only Times Square and the LV Strip) I can only presume that a great number of those Japanese tourists came to DC. It's a serious revenue opportunity that's being squandered - much moreso than most of the other MLB teams, who don't have the natural advantages offered.

Posted by: Highway295Revisited | January 16, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I agree, H295R, we need to build our fan base as much as we do our ballclub. We need butts in seats as much or more than a power hitting left-hander. So instead of Dunn, why not Jr. Griffey?

He's left-handed, has a relationship with Bowden (Jimbo brought him to Cincy) and can play RF so we can move Dukes to CF, Milledge to LF and Willingham to 1B. He's a face and name we can market. I'd even try him out at 1B if I thought he'd give it a go (sell it to him as a way to stay healthy without DH'ing). He's much more of a draw than Dunn would be and could mentor our young hitters like Zim and even Dukes (maybe give Elijah a loan while he's at it).

He's old, and slipping, but so what. He brings more off the field than any other lefty OF/1B out there, and we need help in the PR department as much as anywhere.

Sign him for two years at a bargain price, save him from the DH, and give him a platform for his post-career work, so close to Obama.

Fox sports is reporting four teams are in on Grif, but that they don't know who.

Posted by: sec307 | January 16, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Amen, NatsNut. It wasn't exactly sticking in my craw until I read the last few paragraphs of Dave's post. Seems like attracting Japanese talent should be almost as easy as finding a Japanese bride!

-----

Well, now it kinda does, after reading this.

Posted by: JohninMpls | January 16, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

>I'll give them some credit for their Dominican academy, but that is hardly pushing the envelope.


What, you think the Nats had anything to do with that? Jose Rijo built that place with his own money. He also runs the place.

Posted by: Brue | January 16, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

On the Nats' spring roster, there is an interesting player number change. Willie Harris has apparently gone from wearing No. 1 to wearing No. 22. A precursor to signing Orlando Hudson, perhaps? Also, new bench coach Jim Riggleman has taken No. 5 from Kory Casto, who now is assigned No. 27.

Posted by: leetee1955 | January 16, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Is anyone going to the lunch next Friday at Nats Park? I didn't try to get tickets because I cdn't go anyway. It would be great if someone cd raise the issue of intl scouting. I don't know how candid the answer wd be, but if nothing else the question wd remind the FO that fans are concerned about this.

Posted by: Section109 | January 16, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Maybe as a sign that fans shouldn't get their hopes too elevated, Ladson on nats.com is writing that the team may turn to in-house solutions - including Nick(ed) Johnson back at !B - to fill holes on the team. Serenity now!

Posted by: leetee1955 | January 16, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

The excuses and 'we are examining in house options' started a few weeks ago. IT was the first sign that the front office was considering defeat. Now they're just remping them up. Not that they are totally to blame, I wouldn't give Dunn 4 years either. Ditto Hudson.

Posted by: soundbloke | January 16, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

"In house" options mean to me that they are unwilling to spend to put major league players on the field.

I'm going to the luncheon. International scouting might be the 10th issue that I would ask about. As much as I want them to actually sign international players too, just because Baltimore did it is no reason for Nats fans to be concerned. The Post needs to look at the Nationals as a separate entity, i.e. the Washington team, and stop looking at everything in baseball through orange and black glasses.

Posted by: raymitten | January 16, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

That's no necessarily true. They may have started to see something in a guy like Hernandez that makes them believe he is worth it. Maybe they feel Rhinehart is ready. Going 'in house' is often the right call, rather than overpaying for a mediocre free agent. I just wish I believed that was the motivation rather than 'no one will trae with Bowden'.

Posted by: soundbloke | January 16, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

"They are so risky -- and that's true of free agent pitchers in general."


I am so tired of this from Kasten. He acts like drafting players is not a risk. They sign these young kids and give them millions or thousands for lower round guys. That is a risk. Flat out.

Now I'll admit FA's cost more but, you don't have to be the Yankees for crying out loud but, you can put your big toe in the water every now and then.

Stan "The Plan" Kasten is starting to wear on me and his act is getting tired.

Posted by: Section505203 | January 16, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Management always does spin it the way they want it seen. Everything is seen through rose colored glasses. So, smile, get in line and have a glass of kool-aid at the fest coming up.

Posted by: cokedispatch | January 16, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

You gotta have wa.

----

Great book, BTW.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | January 16, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

>Not that they are totally to blame, I wouldn't give Dunn 4 years either. Ditto Hudson.

I haven't heard Ben Sheets name mentioned once. None of this is an excuse not to go out and get some pitching. So Derek Lowe got a good deal. You know that Sheets would be at least one level down from him due to reliability. I mean, that's what they have MRIs and videotape for. So you have a pretty good idea about their health. So, they should have gotten all the info. a month or two ago. This thing about having the young guys all mature at once - just seems like the ifs aren't 'can he do it like he once did', it's 'can he do it at all'. That's a different kind of 'if' if you're keeping score.

Posted by: Brue | January 16, 2009 5:49 PM | Report abuse

"Think of all the Japanese visitors who come to Washington to see the cherry blossoms"

Wait a minute, wait a minute here...didnt we get the cherry blossoms from Japan? So why the hell would they want to travel thousands of miles to see something that grows all over their own country?

Its like an American traveling to Japan to eat at their McDonalds.

Posted by: BigCarter28 | January 16, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Nunof1, Comish4life, and traderkirk:

1) As has been pointed out, Uehara does not walk guys. His style is suited to a pitchers league (NL) and a slight pitchers park (Nats Park). That is the consensus. I think his record as a reliever the past couple of years is more of an insurance policy in case he is deteriorating with age. It's not like the Os were the only team bidding on him - it's just they paid the most.

2) Lots of reports that Kawakami is projected to be better than Kuroda, who is pretty solid.

3) I think Japanese relievers are great values. There is a long track record of success, going back to Hasegawa. 9 years, ERA+ of 124. $13 million for all of his time in the US. Akinori Otsuka had 3+ good years here ($6.25m), no posting fee. Saito. Okajima (another FA). I had been really interested in a lefty who resigned in Japan, Iwase. Starters have succeeded too, but I like the relievers more.

4) no posting fee for free agents.

5) Fukodome - not so hot. Kaz Matsui, mixed at best. Godzilla - everything that the NYY could have wanted so they resigned him. Ichiro - nuff said. Johjima - was good enough to resign, but looks like a bad contract.

Bottom line - there is some risk in Japanese pursuing Japanese talent, but the cost usually is less than bidding on US free agents. The Dice-K posting fee, and the subsequent overbid on Igawa by the NYY, probably means the era of inconsequential posting fees is over, but free agents are still cheap. The ones who do come over have a much higher success rate than internal development.

Oh, and in terms of success, since 2005, Iguchi was the 2d baseman on a world series winner (ChiSox), So Taguchi was a regular for the 2006 world series winner, Okajima and Dice-K were on the Series winner in 2007 and K Matsui was the 2d baseman on the runner up, and Iwamura was the Rays 2d basemen. So maybe most teams have not signed Japanese talent, just the successful ones, disproportionately.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | January 16, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

the nationals should fire all their current players, sign only players for japan, or american citizens of japanese descent (but only second generation), then rename themselves "There's a nip in the air" (from attack of the killer tomatos)

yes, we should explore all possible countries for prospects. japan is great due to the established league / experience factor. latin america. cuba? china maybe someday? India - can cricket players switch over? we need to start a league system in africa for that matter.

only continent I would exclude - no not antarctica - australia. NZ, ok. australia? No way.

Posted by: MalcolmYoung | January 17, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

yah, but did you ever see the Monty Python comparing the intelligence of penguins to people from other cultures? did you know that if you increased th size of a penguin to 66', its brain would be the size of a human's?

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | January 17, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

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