FULL COUNT: Next ace posted to MLB likely a Sawamura Award winner

In case you missed it, the New York Yankees signed record-setting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract on Jan. 22, making him the latest Eiji Sawamura Award recipient — Japan’s version of the Cy Young, which crowns the league’s top starter — to cross over to the MLB in what is a growing trend for teams seeking an ace.

Beginning in 1995 with the Los Angeles Dodgers experiencing success after bringing over 1990 honoree Hideo Nomo, since 2007, Masumi Kuwata (1987), Koji Uehara (1999, 2002), Daisuke Matsuzaka (2001), Kei Igawa (2003), Kenshin Kawakami (2004), Yu Darvish (2007), Hisashi Iwakuma (2008) and now Tanaka (2011, 2013) have all gone to the majors with four becoming All-Stars (Nomo, Uehara, Darvish and Iwakuma). Matsuzaka, of course, was a key element to Boston’s championship in ‘07 while Kuwata (Pirates), Igawa (Yankees) and Kawakami (Braves) didn’t replicate the success they had in Japan.

So who’s next?

The likely candidate is 2010 winner Kenta Maeda (6-0, 154) of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, whose long windup you may have seen at AT&T Park last February in the World Baseball Classic. The 25-year-old right-hander, who outpitched Tanaka in the WBC, is coming off a 15-7 season and a 14-7 record the year before. His career numbers include a 71-50 record with 22 complete games, nine shutouts, a 2.41 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. He also has 897 strikeouts — 20 percent of the batters he’s faced.

In December, Maeda expressed interest in going to the majors in 2015, meaning he will be under the microscope throughout 2014. If he turns in another solid season, we’ll be talking about the Maeda-signing this time next year.

Personally I’d like to see a team pick up 2012 winner Tadashi Settsu (5-11, 198) of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who was part of the WBC rotation with Tanaka and Maeda. The 31-year-old is 55-26 and has never had a losing record. Settsu has a career 2.39 ERA with 1.03 WHIP and 640 strikeouts — 23 percent of batters he’s faced. He has a quick overhand delivery and with his tools he could be the No. 4 or No. 5 starter, but I see him in the bullpen as a long reliever, setup man or closer like Uehara or even Kazuhiro Sasaki, who closed for the Mariners in the 2000s.

Settsu isn’t under the scope like Maeda, but the scouts are certainly looking at him. We’ll find out next year who goes or doesn’t go to the majors.

Back in New York, Tanaka will soon join a roster that currently includes fellow starter Hiroki Kuroda and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki — both of whom will be called upon to become instant friends and help him settle in when Spring Training begins on Feb. 14.

On that note, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer has been speeding up Tanaka’s visa application to assure he reports to Florida on time.

Drew Morita, a Yonsei from Kaua‘i, writes from San Francisco. Follow him @drewmorita or e-mail him at drew_morita@yahoo.com.

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