FULL COUNT: Japan’s chance for Classic three-peat gets tougher

Japan will have to win this spring without the marquee players that helped them in the past. This week New York Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda and free agent outfielder Ichiro Suzuki announced they will not play for the two-time champion in the World Baseball Classic becoming the latest Japanese stars to opt out of the tournament. Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Norichika Aoki announced their intentions not to participate in the WBC earlier this month. Instead, each will focus on preparing for the 2013 season. Suzuki hopes to resign with the Yankees who recently inked Kuroda to a one-year $15 million deal.

Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa and Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima are also likely to be left off the Samurai roster as major league clubs clamor for their services. The highly touted Fujikawa has met with representatives of the Baltimore Orioles, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs. The 32-year-old is a four-time all-star and has one of the best fastballs in Nippon Professional Baseball. Nakajima has drawn interest from Arizona and Oakland. The 30-year-old is regarded as one of the top players in the NPB, where he’s appeared in seven all-star games.

On Nov. 19, Team Brazil qualified for the WBC with a stunning 1-0 win over a Panama squad packed with big leaguers. Baseball is gaining popularity in the soccer-crazed nation partially due to the large Japanese immigrant communities there. The national team features over a dozen players and coaches of Japanese descent.

Two-time WBC Most Valuable Player Daisuke Matsuzaka is reportedly interested in joining the San Diego Padres. The former Red Sox ace has struggled to regain his all-star form after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011.

Elsewhere, Kansas City re-signed right-handed starter Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year $25 million deal. He was the Royals best pitcher following the All-Star break going 5-3 in 14 starts.

Relief pitcher Ryota Igarashi, who struggled in 2012 during stints with the Toronto Blue Jays and Yankees, will return to Japan after signing a three-year deal with the Soft Bank Hawks.

The Cleveland Indians signed 18-year-old outfielder Takuya Tsuchida to a minor league contract. The high school standout will report to the Indians spring training in March.

Former Texas reliever Koji Uehara is being courted by the Philadelphia Phillies, Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers. The Rangers released the 37-year-old following their wild card loss to Baltimore.

First baseman Travis Ishikawa is a free agent after refusing his assignment to Triple-A Nashville. He appeared in 94 games for Milwaukee this year, starting 27. Ishikawa was an integral part of the San Francisco Giants team that won the World Series in 2010.

Drew Morita, a Yonsei from the island of Kaua‘i, grew up rooting for the Oakland A’s but is now a loyal San Francisco Giants fan. He writes from San Francisco.

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