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THE HOT CORNER: Boosting the minors a major step

by Jim Allen (Jan 22, 2009)

Once just another island in the Japanese archipelago of minor league gulags, Yomiuri's Eastern League farm club has finally been exposed to its own Gigantic version of Glasnost.

It used to be that unless a Giants prospect had been earmarked for a future on the Central League squad, it didn't matter what he did in the EL. There was nothing unusual about this situation. The Giants were no worse than most of the other 11 teams and a good sight better than some, most noticeably the Yokohama BayStars.

Those days, however, are over at Giants Stadium, where all of Yomiuri's minor leaguers now have a legitimate shot at making the CL team roster.

The change has occurred on two levels. Manager Tatsunori Hara started it by creating top-level playing opportunities for unheralded minor leaguers. Over the last 2-1/2 years, the Giants front office has joined the fight by pushing for an expanded minor league calendar.

Two years ago, 30 games were created to help fill gaps that occur in the schedule of a seven-team league. These were played between the idle club and a pickup squad--a "Futures" team--of players made available from the other six teams. It was a small start and six games were washed out, but it was a step in the right direction.

Called "challenge" matches, the games continued in 2008 and will be expanded to 43 this season. The EL's regular season schedule will also get a boost, going from 96 games to 108. If that isn't enough, the Giants and the Chiba Lotte Marines will field a joint squad to play about 25 games this season against corporate league teams. As a result of these changes, some Lotte or Yomiuri players could easily get 125 games this year.

Some might ask what's the big deal, since so few people go to minor league games or pay much attention to them. The answer is talent. Japan's talent growth is retarded by a want of opportunities: the small number of professional jobs and the scarcity of games for those who do find work.

Increasing the scope of minor league ball has two advantages. The first and most obvious is that it gives individuals more challenges and learning opportunities.

It didn't use to matter when Japan's baseball market was closed and pro ball had a nearly captive audience. But with drastic changes in the economy, increased competition from other sports and with major league teams grabbing mature stars and competing for fans' attention, the absolute quality of the game matters more than ever.

To thrive, teams need a different approach. And while Yomiuri clings to Nippon Professional Baseball's antiquated setup like a life preserver, the Giants front office has been adjusting. Instead of focusing exclusively on players who earned outstanding reputations for other teams and in amateur ball, the Giants are now alert to the possibility of growing their own.

While Hara has treated his minor leaguers as an essential element to success since starting his first stint as skipper in 2002, the difference is that the front office now gets it. The evidence is in the club's push for expanded minor league schedules.

"Starting from next season, we'll play more games than anyone," team representative Hidetoshi Kiyotake said in December. "Within a few years that gap will be noticeable."

Kiyotake sees a new standard for talent development, but the other advantage of minor expansion is in increased opportunities to re-evaluate talent.

Scouts, coaches and organizations often misjudge player potential. If anyone thought lefty Tetsuya Yamaguchi was a prospect, he would have been drafted before the Giants could sign him to a developmental contract. All 12 teams at one point missed the boat on the 2008 CL rookie of the year, now established as a solid middle reliever.

Increased playing time will enable more overlooked players to prove they belong.

For the Giants, who have all but ignored their second-tier draft picks over the past 15 years, the new focus on the minors is an exciting change.

If they pursue this path, Giants Stadium will no longer be the end of the road for minor league exiles, but the starting point for major excellence.


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