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Jim Allen

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The Hot Corner: Baseball's season for giving

by Jim Allen (Dec 25, 2008)

It's the holiday season, and one's thoughts naturally turn to giving. Although baseball clubs ostensibly exist in a competitive world, that doesn't prevent teams from displaying unusual acts of generosity.

How else could one explain the Chiba Lotte Marines' desire to give a job to second baseman Tadahito Iguchi? For a team that finished fourth last year, there are more pressing needs than upgrading a position where the Marines already have some talent--especially if the club has to spend big bucks to do it.

Even though Iguchi is past his prime, he's a good player and could help outgoing skipper Bobby Valentine win one more pennant. The problem is that the Marines are already well positioned at second with a pair of 25-year-olds who can hit. Neither Takeshi Aono nor Shunichi Nemoto is a household name, yet, but both could develop into solid players.

Iguchi was one of the top players in Japan before leaving the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks in 2005. At the age of 34, he is probably still a step ahead of the kids. But one wonders how much the new Marines regime, led by team president Ryuzo Setoyama, is going to spend to get him.

If the Marines splurge on Iguchi, they'll have to take playing time away from Aono and Nemoto, giving them fewer chances to develop and achieve their potential.

Aono was hurt last season but he still has a chance to be good, while Nemoto, the 2006 Eastern League batting champ, was a success in his first full Pacific League season.

Nemoto hit .296 in 314 at-bats in 2008 with 32 walks. His effort was as valuable as the seasons Iguchi was having at the same age a decade ago.

This is not to say anyone expects Nemoto to develop the way Iguchi did. They are not similar players to begin with; Iguchi didn't hit for average until he turned 28, but he was a good-fielding, speedy power hitter who drew his share of walks.

Nemoto doesn't hit for power, is not as fast and doesn't field as well, so he doesn't have the growth potential Iguchi did. But the issue is not about what Iguchi did in his prime, but what he'll do over the next couple seasons in Chiba and what it will cost the Marines to put him in the lineup ahead of Nemoto and Aono.

Unless Iguchi comes very cheaply, one would have to think the Marines' motive is simply Setoyama's generosity. The president, who used to be an executive for the Hawks, apparently has a soft spot for Fukuoka refugees.

In the meeting on Sunday in which he generously relieved Valentine of some organization-building responsibilities, Setoyama talked about a need for a new direction.

In six seasons as Marines skipper, Valentine has given seven position players their first regular playing time. He hasn't brought in veterans to play ahead of promising youngsters, but the pursuit of Iguchi suggests we may see some different things with Setoyama in charge.

Of course Chiba isn't the only place where logic is overruled by generosity.

The way the Dragons give away useful minor leaguers every year, one would think they were trying to put Santa Claus out of business.

In 2006, Chunichi sold hot-hitting 23-year-old minor leaguer Teppei Tsuchiya to Rakuten for peanuts. Since then, the outfielder has been solid and a much better player than Lee Byung Kyu--whom the Dragons paid a pile of money to in 2007.

This holiday season, the Dragons were at again with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows enjoying Chunichi's largesse. The Swallows, who had written to the North Pole asking for a shortstop, got exactly what they wanted.

Either the Dragons are dumb or they just figured they could make some small-market team's Christmas brighter by releasing 23-year-old Ryosuke Morioka.

Morioka is eerily similar to Nemoto. Like Nemoto, he's a left-handed-hitting infielder who runs well but doesn't steal bases or have a plus-glove; he hits for average and draws walks but lacks power. Like Nemoto, Morioka doesn't project to be a big star, but he'll win some games in his new Yakult uniform.

Don't let anyone tell you pro baseball is cold and harsh. It is a world of generosity--and the Marines and Dragons are doing their best to spread the love.


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