Japan has lost some of its best players to the United States over the years, including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka. In 2009, no less than 18 Japanese players, which is perhaps the largest number ever, took the field in major leagues.
However, in what might be a reversal of fortune, at least five of them won’t be returning to the field of play – in the United States at least.
Probably the biggest name to leave the United States is former Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima. Faced with reduced playing after struggling for the past two seasons, Johjima opted out of his contract and returned to Japan to play.
Johjima was productive his first two seasons in the majors, averaging a respectable 16 HRs and 69 RBIs a season. However, he was plagued by injuries and was unproductive both behind and at the plate the past two seasons.
As far as Japanese players go, Johjima’s large contract (three years for $24 million) and poor play has been surpassed only by the Yankees’ big-time bust Kei Igawa (five years for $20 million). While Johjima was decent for two seasons, Igawa has won only two games in three seasons and didn’t play a game with the Yankees in 2009.
By opting out of his deal, Johjima basically gave up more than $15 million owed to him for the next two seasons. Don’t feel bad for him, however. He and his family won’t be living on dry ramen. Days after returning to Japan, the Hanshin Tigers signed him to a four-year $24 million deal.
The Cubs parted ways with journeyman outfielder So Taguchi, who played only a handful of games for Chicago in 2009. The 40-year-old signed with the Cubs this season but spent most of the season with the team’s triple-A affiliate in Iowa.
Taguchi played for the Phillies in 2008. Prior to that, he played six seasons with the Cardinals. His best season was arguably 2005, when he hit .288 for the Cardinals in 143 games. His release by the Cubs makes Taguchi an unrestricted free agent, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll sign with a team at his age.
Taguchi’s claim to fame is that he has more World Series rings than any other Japanese player. Taguchi, who played in three World Series, got a ring in 2006 with the Cardinals and again in 2008 with the Phillies. Oddly enough, he got a ring with the Phillies even though he didn’t make the World Series roster.
It seems like only yesterday that Takashi Saito was closing out games for the Dodgers. In the 2006-2007 seasons, Saito saved 63 games for Los Angeles, making an All-Star Game in the process. His 39 saves in 2007 are the second most by a Japanese pitcher, behind Kazuhiro Sasaki’s 45 in 2001 with Seattle.
Saito injured his shoulder in late 2008 and signed with the Red Sox in the offseason. On paper Saito had a good season in Boston, going 3-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 56 games. However, Saito wasn’t used in crucial situations. He’ll be 40 when the 2010 season starts so he might be able to latch on with a team looking for middle relief, but his balky shoulder could be a stumbling block.
Long-shot Ken Takahashi never found a role in the Mets bullpen. A veteran of 14 seasons in Japanese professional baseball, Takahashi made the leap to the United States at the relatively advanced age of 40. Although his 2009 ERA is an exceptional 2.96, he pitched mostly in mop-up roles and spent a good part of the season in the minors.
The lefty’s claim to fame is that he struck out Ryan Howard, the Phillies slugger and former MVP, five times in the five times he faced him.
When you think sports and say “Kobayashi,” the first name that comes to mind is competitive eating champion Takeru Kobayashi, a.k.a. the “Tsunami.” And in 2009, his namesake Masahide Kobayashi of the Cleveland Indians did nothing to change that.
In fact, Masahide Kobayashi was so bad last season that he gave up runs faster than the Tsunami could eat a hot dog. No small chore given that the Tsunami has been known to eat 50 hot dogs 12 minutes.
Kobayashi, the bad one, was sent to the minors by the Indians in May and released in mid-July. And although he’s only 35, his 8.38 ERA isn’t likely to get him a shot in the major leagues any time soon.
Tomo Ohka was part of Cleveland’s Japanese revolving door in 2009. About a week after Masa Kobayashi was sent to the minors, the 33-year-old Ohka was brought up. Unfortunately Ohka fared only marginally better, going 1-5 with a 5.96 in both relief and starting roles.
Ohka, who hadn’t pitched in the bigs since 2007, probably doesn’t fit into Cleveland’s long-term plans. The Indians will be rebuilding in 2010 after dealing away some of the team’s tops stars, such as Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee. Ohka has a shot at making a big-league team, albeit a long one.
Ohka’s claim to fame is his longevity. He broke into the bigs in 1999 with Boston at the age of 23, and ended up playing for the Red Sox, Expos/Nationals, Brewers, Blue Jays and Cleveland. His tenseasons in the majors are behind only Hideo Nomo, who played in 11 seasons. His 45 wins are tied with Shigetoshi Hasegawa and behind Nomo (123) for second-most by a Japanese player.
Kerwin Berk is the former assistant sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com.