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Teens lead rookie hype parade

by Jim Allen (Mar 19, 2008)

It may have been Sho time at the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters' spring camp, but teenage rookie Sho Nakata's Pacific League debut is on hold until he is comfortable enough against pro pitching to become a force in the batter's box.

In the Central League, Tokyo Yakult Swallows teen Yoshinori Sato was also touted to the skies but failed to find his feet on the mound or his name on the Opening Day roster.

As disappointing as their demotions were after a winter and spring filled with hype, their trip to the minors appears to be just a detour for two youngsters filled with potential.

Fighters manager Masataka Nashida is big on Nakata's powerful promise but is not expecting to call him back until August, when he needs replacements for guys lost to the national team for the Olympics.

Nakata, who has power to all fields but little natural fielding talent, was asked in camp to play third base--a position he'd never played. But it was his struggles at the plate that made the difference. Nakata often looked bad, going 1-for-17 in spring exhibition games.

"I think it was a good experience," Nakata said. "One needs a baptism of fire before one becomes a demon."

A day after Nakata got his marching orders, Sato, who hit 154 kph on the radar gun this spring, got his.

"This represents my real level," Sato was quoted as saying. "I'm going to adjust. No matter how hard I want it and go after it, I am not at that [first-team] level yet."

While Rakuten pitcher Masahiro Tanaka won the Rookie of the Year Award straight out of high school in 2007, it has been 21 years since a position player, the Chunichi Dragons' Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, has done it. It is rare for a teenage rookie to even get regular playing time in the field. This helps explain some of the excitement that enveloped Nakata.

Because most dominant rookies come out of college or corporate teams, the media salivated at the prospect of one or even two teen superheroes.

Olympic team manager Senichi Hoshino fell in with that sentiment when he said the teens were among 70 candidates for this summer's Beijing Olympics.

Neither is likely to make the Olympic grade, but miracles can happen.

Although Nakata and Sato may be bright stars within a year or two, a big future is closer at hand for a couple of older rookies.

In November when clubs went after the older guys, the biggest name was right-hander Shota Oba. Six clubs went after the Toyo University right-hander, who wound up in Fukuoka with the SoftBank Hawks.

Five clubs went for lefty Kohei Hasebe, whose rookie season with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles hit a major snag with a March 2 knee injury. Hasebe's debut will now be delayed until at least July.

That makes Oba the clear favorite to be 2008's big new star.

Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh, who wants players to develop their unique abilities to the fullest, would like Oba to spend more time becoming a fastball strikeout artist.

"He could turn into a pitcher who just blows batters away with his heat, and I want to see that," Oh said after watching Oba fiddle around with his other pitches in spring training.

Still, Oba has been named to start the Hawks' third game of the year, on March 23 against the Eagles in Fukuoka, and this despite getting belted around in a pair of mid-March starts.

"I kept thinking about the previous at-bat and how they got a hit off me," Oba was quoted as saying. "I always had that in mind, but I really don't have that much margin for error to be able to do that. I was obsessing."

Oba obviously shared that problem with the media this spring, but by September, his will likely be the name everyone remembers with relish as 2008's biggest rookie star.


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