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Six Japanese free agents to watch

Email|Print| Text size + By Daigo Fujiwara
Globe Staff / November 14, 2007

Earlier this week was the deadline for Japanese players who are eligible to file for the free agency. They will be allowed to negotiate with teams in both Japan and the United States starting today, Nov. 14. Here are the six likely candidates to jump across the Pacific.

Kosuke Fukudome
Outfielder (right field), Chunichi Dragons
Age: 30 (DOB: Apr. 26, 1977)
Hits: Left, Throws: Right
2007:.294, 13 HR, 48 RBI

Fukudome missed half of the 2007 season with a right elbow injury, but is considered one of the best all-around hitters in Japanese Pro Baseball. He has career average of .305 with 192 homers in 9 seasons. He plays solid defense, and was named the Central League MVP in 2006, when he led the league with a .351 batting average to go along with 31 HRs, 104 RBIs, and 11 SBs. He played for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, batting fifth in most of the games, but struggled (he hit .105 in the tournament) and was benched for the semifinal game against Korea. He came off the bench as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning in that game, and delivered a two-run home run off of ex-Red Sox pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim, breaking a scoreless tie. Fukudome did not file for free agency until the last day of the filing period. On his blog, fukudome1.com, he wrote "it was the toughest decision in my life [to decide whether or not to file for FA] but wanted to find out how other clubs valued me as a baseball player."

Hiroki Kuroda
Starting pitcher, Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Age: 32 (DOB: Feb. 10, 1975)
Hits: Right, Throws: Right
2007: 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA

His fastball reaches 97 miles per hour, and he also throws a forkball, slider, and shuuto (a two-seam fastball that cuts into righthanded hitters). Kuroda has good command, pitching 74 complete games in the last 11 years. He is the same age as Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, and the two had some great matchups in Japan. Kuroda lead the Central League with a 1.85 ERA in 2006, despite playing in the smallest park in Japan. In 2005, he led the league with 15 wins, and was awarded one of the Central League's "Best nine" awards, which are given to the best player of the league at each position. His father was also a pitcher who played with Nankai Hawks in the '50s, so Kurado comes from a strong baseball background.

Masahide Kobayashi
Relief pitcher, Chiba Lotte Marines
Age: 33 (DOB: May. 24, 1974)
Hits: Right, Throws: Right
2007: 2-7, 27 saves, 3.61 ERA

Kobayashi's fastball reaches the low 90s, and he also throws a shuuto and a sinking slider. He has been Chiba's closer since 2000, and has at least 20 saves in each of the last seven seasons, which is a Japanese league record. He led the league in most saves in 2005 with 29. Kobayashi helped Bobby Valentine's Lotte win the Japan Series that year, closing out the final game of the series. He struggled a little in 2007, recording a career-high 7 losses, and was sent down to the farm league to make adjustments. He has 227 total saves in the Japanese League. Only two other Japanese pitchers have had 200 or more saves: Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shingo Takatsu, who have both played in the major leagues.

Yasuhiko Yabuta
Relief pitcher, Chiba Lotte Marines
Age: 34 (DOB: Jun. 19, 1973)
Hits: Right, Throws: Right
2007: 4-6, 4 saves, 2.73 ERA

Yabuta's fastball is in low 90s, and he also throws a slider, forkball and changeup. Lotte manager Bobby Valentine converted Yabuta from a starting pitcher to a middle reliever in 2004, and Yabuta has since recorded 9 saves to go with 86 holds. He has a career record of 44-59 in 343 appearances with a 4.03 ERA in 12 seasons. In 2007, he had a 2.73 ERA, 34 holds, and was 4-6 with 4 saves and a 45-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was good enough to win the "best middle-relief award". In the World Baseball Classic game against Team USA, he was summoned into a tie game, with two outs with a runner on third, and he struck out Alex Rodriguez to end the seventh inning. Then in the eighth, he got Chipper Jones to ground to third and struck out Derrek Lee and Johnny Damon to end the inning.

Kazuo Fukumori
Relief pitcher, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Age: 33 (DOB: Aug. 4, 1974)
Hits: Right, Throws: Right
2007: 4-2, 17 saves, 4.75 ERA

He has a fastball in the high 80s and throws a shuuto, forkball and knuckle-curve. He has been the closer of the expansion team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, since the team joined the Pacific League in 2005. Fukumori has 49 saves in the last three years, and a career total of 72, but he may have saved more games if he played for a better team, as Rakuten is just 153-257 in the last three years.

Yukinaga Maeda
Relief pitcher, Yomiuri Giants
Age: 37 (DOB: Aug. 26, 1970)
Hits: Left, Throws: Left
2007: 0-1, 5.06 ERA

The 19-year veteran lefty is best known for mixing in a knuckleball into his pitching arsenal. Unlike Tim Wakefield's knuckler, Maeda's has a slight spin and a downward motion near the plate. He can throw from different arm angles (from three-quarter to sidearm), and has good a pick-off move. In 2007, he was limited to only 15 appearances, partly due to his age and a lack of confidence from his manager, but he may be able to be successful in the Major Leagues as a situational lefty reliever.

Daigo Fujiwara is a graphic designer at the Globe, and the founder of JapaneseBallPlayers.com. He also and writes Japanese-language Red Sox blog, go-redsox.com.

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