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THE HOT CORNER: Today names, tomorrow results

by Jim Allen (Oct 28, 2010)

Among media and fans, the speculation over today's amateur draft is all about which young star will go where, and for good reason. Players drafted in the first round produce more value, on average, than those who go later.

Today's biggest names are a trio of university right-handers: Waseda's Yuki Saito and Tatsuya Oishi, and Chuo's Hirokazu Sawamura. Saito and Sawamura are starters, while Oishi is a reliever.

Four years ago, Saito was a household name for his iron-armed feats at Koshien for Tokyo's Waseda Jitsugyo High School and his propensity for mopping his brow with a handkerchief. When he announced he would attend Waseda University rather than turn pro, it was national news.

Saito led his university to the Japan championship in his first season, while drawing enormous crowds to league games at Jingu Stadium.

Yet, his status as Japan's top prospect has since been claimed by Sawamura, who was undrafted as a high schooler in 2006.

Oishi's fastball has impressed scouts, although his command is still something of a question mark. Like Sawamura, Oishi was unheralded out of high school. At Waseda, he found himself with established pitchers like Saito and Yuya Fukui, another right-hander likely to go in the first round today.

"I didn't want to be second best [to them]," he told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

One major league scout, who chose not to be named, described Saito as a quality pitcher who sometimes brings less than his best against weaker opposition, citing his stunning loss to doormat Tokyo University earlier this month.

The same scout called Sawamura the cream of the crop.

"His demeanor on the mound, his control, everything about the kid is really good," the scout told The Hot Corner on Wednesday. "I think he'll be able to hold his own."

The moral is that a lot can happen in a few years. Players who don't stand out as 18-year-olds can develop into blue-chip prospects a year or two down the road.

This is why major league teams have all but abandoned using first-round picks on high school pitchers. College pitchers, who have faced tougher competition and are more mature, have proven to be better investments with those valuable top picks.

First-round picks here are more likely to be successful, but the difference is simply a matter of degree.

In a study done by this writer of Japanese players born between April 2, 1968, and April 1, 1976, the average second-round pick generated 61 percent as much value as first-round picks, third-round picks 41 percent and fourth-round picks 31 percent.

Still, being a draft-day star is no guarantee of a great career.

Take 1991. Most of that year's first-rounders were good players, but the fourth round included two future Hall of Famers.

The first-round had three future major leaguers: southpaw Kazuhisa Ishii, infielder So Taguchi and pitcher Takashi Saito. Two other first-round pitchers were Kenichi Wakatabe and Hiroshi Takamura, quality arms with injury-shortened careers.

Two stars came out of the second round: third baseman Atsushi Kataoka and shortstop Teruyoshi Kuji, while the third round produced two regulars.

The fourth round, however, was something else, with university outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto and high school pitcher Ichiro Suzuki, who was converted to the outfield after signing with Orix. Both are future Hall of Famers, and that's not all.

The third-best player taken that day, slugging infielder Norihiro Nakamura, was a fourth-rounder, as was outfielder Shinjiro Hiyama, who would have to rank among the 1991 draft's top 10.

"I've always been conscious of that [going in the same round as them]," Hiyama told The Hot Corner recently. "It made me more competitive, feeling I was being compared with them in some way."

Hiyama now considers himself among an elite group. But 19 years ago on draft day, who had any inkling of their potential?

When this draft is done, tomorrow's news will be about which big names went where. Of course, the real story will be played out over the next 20 years, and chances are the biggest name then will be all but unnoticed today.


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