Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki could become the hottest prospect ever to come to baseball’s major leagues from Japan, and the first who’s not a pitcher.
Suzuki, 27, hit .387 last season, the tops for any Japanese player in history, and won his seventh straight batting title. Owner of a lifetime .353 average, Suzuki is also noted also for his fielding, throwing and running abilities.
The New York Times on Thursday reported that bids for Suzuki from major league teams could exceed $10 million.
Still, Suzuki’s numbers in the Japanese leagues — where competition is widely acknowledged to be at a lower level than that in the majors — wouldn’t even put him among the top 10 hitters in either the American or National League in most categories.
In his nine-year career, he has 1,278 hits, 119 home runs and 529 runs batted in with the Orix Blue Wave, a Pacific League team based in the port city of Kobe. This past season, he had 153 hits and 73 RBIs — numbers on par Cleveland Indians outfielder Kenny Lofton.
New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who once managed in Japan, has called Suzuki one of the top five players in the world. Suzuki’s critics, however, praise the outfielder’s quick bat and good arm but say he lacks power, like many Japanese hitters.
Regardless, Suzuki — who also stole 21 bases last season — is wildly popular in his homeland well beyond the world of baseball. His face has graced billboards and television commercials, and details of his private life have been a staple of newsmagazine and TV entertainment reporting shows.
Selling Rights to a Superstar
There have for years been rumors and reports in Japanese sports pages that Suzuki wanted to play in the major leagues. He took part in the Seattle Mariners’ spring training camp in 1999, along with Japanese pitchers Nobuyuki Hoshino and Nobuyuki Ebisu. His visit to Arizona was seen as a move by Orix to showcase its star to major league teams.
Nearly two years later, Orix can now finally let him go — and should profit handsomely. Japanese players are generally required to play for 10 years in their native land. Leaving before then — as pitcher Hideo Nomo did in 1995 after just five seasons in the Pacific League — is considered an act of insubordination, or even contract violation.
By selling rights to Suzuki now, after nine seasons, Orix stands to earn millions. If the team waited until Suzuki becomes a free agent next year, it would get nothing.
Orix informed the Japanese commissioner on Wednesday that it had made Suzuki available for bids from major league teams. Bids will be accepted until next Wednesday, Nov. 8th.
If Suzuki is signed by a U.S. team, he would follow the path of some top Japanese pitchers, some of whom have made a splash in the majors. Seattle’s Kazuhiro Sasaki ranked third among American League relievers with 37 saves this past season. Nomo, the first native of Japan to play for a U.S. team in 30 years, was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1995.
Other Japanese pitchers currently in American uniforms include Hideki Irabu, Masato Yoshii and Shigetoshi Hasegawa.
But the arrival of outfielder Suzuki — if he is, indeed, signed by a major league team — would be an entirely new chapter in the burgeoning Japanese-U.S. baseball exchange program.
Japanese Team Is the Winner in Deal
Whether and how major league teams can sign Japanese players has been a contentious issue for years.