A topic that's come up in the media a couple times this offseason is NPB's role in winter ball. Japanese participation in the various international winter leagues is nothing new, but there seems to be somewhat of a renewed interest in it.
Before I get going, let me acknowledge that this is not a particularly thoroughly-researched post. If you see something that should be added, don't hesitate to point it out.
On with the show.
I've picked up on two distinct threads in the current wave of winter ball interest. The first, and to me most interesting, is Softbank director of player development Itaru Kobayashi's idea of hosting a winter league in Okinawa. In the Sponichi article I linked to, Kobayashi was quoted as saying, "I've told NPB and the players' association, but (the reaction) was at a 'that's interesting' level. I've also spoken with the major of Naha (Okinawa's capital city). I definitely want to move towards realizing this next year." Kobayashi's vision calls for a four-team league that would focus on younger players, including prospects from Taiwan, Korea and Latin America.
The second, and more conventional idea is Yomiuri team representative Hidetoshi Kiyotake's, which would have NPB sending more players to established winter leagues overseas. This isn't a new idea, NPB clubs had players in winter leagues in Australia, Puerto Rico and the Dominican this year. The newness of Kiyotake's idea is that he "wants all 12 teams involved" and goes as far as putting the idea of entering an all-Japanese team in a winter league on the table for discussion.
I say, why not do both? It's certainly possible to have a league of younger prospects in Okinawa, and send a group of more advanced players to the Caribbean. Japanese teams and players tend to train pretty thoroughly throughout the offseason, in autumn team camps and players' self-directed jishu training that typically takes place in January. Getting more players involved in competitive games against a more diverse group of opponents certainly couldn't hurt.
Fittingly, the two teams leading these discussions were the two that sent the largest contingents of players to winter leagues this season. Softbank sent pitchers Sho Iwasaki and Shota Ohba and coach Shinji Kurano to Puerto Rico; and group of four players and one coach to Australia. Yomiuri dispatched six players, headlined by IF/OF Yoshiyuki Kamei, to Australia this winter to play for the Melbourne Aces. Both teams got some positive news back. Iwasaki won the Puerto Rican league's MVP award, and his team badly wanted to keep him for the playoffs. Kamei tore apart the lower-level Australian Baseball League, and put in some infield work in preparation for the 2011 season. And taking a card out of Chunichi's deck, the Giants also signed their players' Melbourne teammate, lefty Adam Bright, to an ikusei contract.