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News » Unlike other imports, Iwamura is a keeper 2008-10-05

Unlike other imports, Iwamura is a keeper 2008-10-05

Unlike other imports, Iwamura is a keeper  2008-10-05
My colleague Tracy Ringolsby heard a special announcement Friday walking through the United Airlines terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

"Paging Kosuke Fukudome, paging Kosuke Fukudome. Please report to the Cincinnati Reds for a player to be named later."

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A few hours later, the Rays' Japanese import, Akinori Iwamura, ensured that no one will make such a wise-guy remark at Tampa International Airport anytime soon.

After going 2-for-4 with an RBI triple, walk and run scored in Game 1 of the Division Series, Iwamura hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning of Game 2, giving the Rays the lead in their 6-2 victory over the White Sox.

His manager, Joe Maddon, will not find it necessary to announce, "there's no sense sending him out there anymore," as Cubs manager Lou Piniella did when asked about Fukudome on Thursday night.

The diverging fortunes of Iwamura and Fukudome only reinforce an emerging truth: Major-league teams will need to be more careful in their scouting of Japanese players.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman, at a news conference announcing his new three-year contract on Wednesday, said the Yankees changed how they scout players in Japan after making a mistake on left-hander Kei Igawa.

The Cubs, meanwhile, owe $38 million over the next three years to Fukudome, who batted .217 after the All-Star break and is 0-for-8 in the Division Series.

If his signing proves a mistake, Fukudome will join Igawa, Hideki Irabu and Kaz Ishii among the more notable Japanese flops.

Oft-injured second baseman Kaz Matsui also makes the list — he has signed contracts with the Mets and Astros worth a combined $36.6 million, yet has averaged only 94 games in five major-league seasons.

And don't forget Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima, who is held in such low regard by his teammates, the three-year, $24 million extension that the team's Japanese ownership awarded him last April nearly caused a clubhouse revolt.

Iwamura, by contrast is a bargain.

The Rays paid $4.55 million for his rights after the 2006 season, then signed him to a three-year, $7.7 million contract.

Iwamura, 29, played terrific defense at third base and posted a .359 on-base percentage as a rookie. He then moved to second base to accommodate the promotion of Evan Longoria and posted lesser offensive numbers in his second season.

Iwamura's .729 OPS was the 18th lowest among American League regulars, and his .354 OBP in the leadoff spot was the 11th lowest. His defense at second also rates as below-average by some measures, but the Rays view him as above-average, the best double-play pivot man in the American League — overall, a terrific complimentary piece.

Scouting Japanese players is tricky — most come to the U.S. in their late 20s and early 30s. When judging amateur talent, scouts project what a player might become. Japanese players, for the most part, are fully formed by the time they reach the majors, and then must adjust to an entirely new culture and style of play.

Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka qualify as high-priced successes, Hideki Okajima as a low-budget find. But teams can not afford more swings and misses like Fukudome, if indeed he proves a miss. Iwamura, by contrast, already qualifies as a clean single, if not more.

Red Sox-Dodgers would be one for the ages

No disrespect to any of the remaining postseason teams, but I'm dreaming of a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series.

Manny Ramirez, Derek Lowe and Nomar Garciaparra back in Boston.

Manny vs. Jason Bay.

J.D. "Opt Out" Drew vs. the Dodgers.

And, one more time, Joe Torre vs. the Red Sox.

Yes, I'm getting way ahead of myself, but I'm a writer, not a player. I don't need to play ‘em one at a time. I can conjure up whatever the heck I want.

For the second straight year, each Division Series stands at two games to none. When you're talking about four possible sweeps, a man's mind starts to wander...

I dig the Phillies. I love the Rays. But Red Sox-Dodgers would be a showdown for the ages, a soap opera that would make everyone forget the stinkin' Cubs.


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Added: October 5, 2008

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