During his five years managing in Japan, only once did Trey Hillman meander over to his opponents during their stretching exercises. He needed to chat with Hiroki Kuroda.
"I got the interpreter and said, 'I want to meet yesterday's starter.' He said, 'What'd he do?' He's immediately nervous," said Hillman, the new Kansas City Royals skipper. "Gaijin manager, and they put you up on that pedestal. I wanted to tell him how good he was after he had shoved the bats up our rear ends."
Such an impression Kuroda made, in fact, that Hillman plans on flying around the world to court him if need be. Kuroda, the right-handed pitcher, intends on choosing his major-league destination this week, and much like the rest of his Japanese brethren, he isn't short on choices.
The frenzy for Japanese players, in previous seasons limited to one big name every few years, has gone wackier than cannabis sativa. Never mind that outfielder Kosuke Fukudome's exposure to major-league pitching is limited to the World Baseball Classic and that he's coming off elbow surgery. The Chicago Cubs lavished him late Tuesday with a four-year contract worth around $50 million. Forget that relief pitchers Masahide Kobayashi (Cleveland) and Yasuhiko Yabuta (Kansas City) haven't thrown a ball outside of Japan. Each snagged $6 million for two-year deals with an option, and reliever Kazuo Fukumori could get the same.
And then there's Kuroda, who turns 33 in February and posted a 1.85 ERA two years ago. Like Fukudome, he represents the new breed in Japanese players benefiting from baseball's incredible growth as a business – and cashing in on the gargantuan dollars paid last season for Daisuke Matsuzaka ($103 million, including posting fee) and Kei Igawa ($46 million).
No longer are the top-end Japanese players the blue-plate specials of years past, not when the bidding on Kuroda will exceed $12 million per season and could push toward $50 million, too, if he seeks a four-year contract.
"The difference now," agent Alan Nero said, "is the clubs realize there is value, and they're out there chasing talent as opposed to looking for a bargain. No one really knew. There wasn't genuine respect that a Japanese player could come in and have instantaneous impact."
Thirteen years ago, during the major-league strike, Nero acquainted himself with the Asian market, just in case his players wanted to pursue employment there.
"And I found more than I ever dreamed of," he said.
Since then, Nero has been among the trailblazers in opening up the Asian market. He brokered a deal to allow American players in the Korean league. He brought Chien-Ming Wang from Taiwan to the New York Yankees. And he watched as the Japanese market evolved, from Hideo Nomo's signing in 1995 to Ichiro Suzuki's in 2001 to Matsuzaka's last year
"Every single player that comes over is breaking new ground in a sense," Nero said. "When Nomo came over, it was evident that pitchers might be good enough but hitters weren't. Then when Ichiro came over, all of a sudden the hitters could make it.
"This last year, with (Hideki) Okajima and (Takashi) Saito's success, there's this realization that the relievers may have value in a very thin market where American relievers are in great demand. Not to mention when Kenji Johjima came over, no one thought a Japanese catcher could succeed, and now he's one of the best in the game."
And on and on and on. Japan has become a boutique feeder league for MLB, and a presence there is integral for the Boston Red Sox, with their giant international budget, as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hired Mack Hayashi, a former colleague of Nero's, to run their Pacific Rim operations.
"I used to be alone at games," said one scout who travels to Asia every year. "Now I've got drinking buddies."
Scouting the Japanese leagues is different than traditional assessments, as the transatlantic translation of a player's game varies. In Japan, Okajima and Saito were middling relief pitchers. Major-league hitters still can't figure either out. On the other hand, Hideki Irabu and Igawa, both so successful in Japan, flamed out in New York, the former nicknamed by George Steinbrenner "the Fat Toad," the other deserving a sobriquet like "the Worthless Load."
Matsuzaka acquitted himself well enough during his rookie season, though not $100 million-plus well. With the salaries climbing like Edmund Hillary, that could be of some concern to the next generation of Japanese players.
The success must match the money. Matsuzaka needs to be a No. 1-quality starter, not a No. 3 or 4. Fukudome must get on base at a 40-percent clip, play solid right field and do nothing that might cause the Bleacher Bums to have a little too much Old Style-addled fun with his surname. Kuroda must justify the long-term deal for someone who will be closer to 40 than 30 by its conclusion.
Because just as quickly as baseball has leapt on Japan as its duct tape, disappointments will lead it to look elsewhere.
"It's going to go in stages," Hillman said. "No. 1, in a want stage. No. 2, in a need stage. And No. 3, in an available-money stage."
Right now, there happens to be a surfeit of each. And so the offers for Kuroda will pour in, from the Dodgers and the Mariners and the Diamondbacks and, yes, even the Royals, millions upon millions for a pitcher who may love the major leagues or may hate the food here and struggle with homesickness. He may be Nomo, a marvel in his first season, and he may be Igawa, an embarrassment in his.
The important part is that he's from Japan. And that, more than anything, is worth a lot these days.
- Hiroki Kuroda
- Kosuke Fukudome
- Trey Hillman