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THE HOT CORNER: A quick look back at free agency

by Jim Allen (Mar 3, 2011)

If Takuya Takahama fulfills the potential the Hanshin Tigers once saw in him, it will be the Chiba Lotte Marines who will have a lot to smile about.

On Tuesday, Lotte plucked the infielder-outfielder from the Tigers roster as compensation for free agent Marines pitcher Hiroyuki Kobayashi signing with Hanshin. Allowed to protect 28 players, the Tigers left Takahama, the fourth overall pick in 2007's high school draft, unprotected, and the Marines snatched him.

We won't know how this swap balances out for a number of years, but if the often-injured 21-year-old turns things around, it might end up a good deal for Lotte.

In fact, it's not that unusual for a free agent signing to be less valuable than the player taken in compensation. Takahama is the 11th compensation pick since the free agent era began in 1993.

The most valuable player of those 11 has been Tokyo Yakult Swallows outfielder Kazuki Fukuchi. Liberated by the Seibu Lions' signing of free agent lefty Kazuhisa Ishii, Fukuchi became a two-time Central League stolen base champ with Yakult. Ishii, has helped the Lions but not to the degree that Fukuchi has served the Swallows' cause.

Next on the list is Hiroshima Carp outfielder Masato Akamatsu. A Golden Glove winner, Akamatsu was taken when the Tigers signed slugger Takahiro Arai.

If Fukuchi and Akamatsu have been the best of the compensation guys, who have been the top free agent signings?

If one considers what a player did in the three years following his signing, Japan's top 10 free agent acquisitions are:

1. Michihiro Ogasawara, Yomiuri Giants. The slugging corner infielder is both the only player to file for free agency and win an MVP in his first year with his new team, and the only one to win three straight league championships.

2. Tomoaki Kanemoto, Hanshin Tigers. In 2003, the outfielder's first year with Hanshin, the Tigers won their first CL pennant in 18 years. They won again in 2005 with Kanemoto as CL MVP.

3. Kazuhiro Wada, Chunichi Dragons. The outfielder moved way up the list with his deserving MVP in 2010, his third season since moving from Seibu.

4. Atsunori Inaba, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Like Kobayashi, Inaba wanted to go to the majors but a lack of offers kept him in Japan. His first three Fighters' seasons brought two Pacific League Best IX Awards, two Golden Gloves in the outfield, two PL championships and a Japan Series MVP Award.

5. Hiromitsu Ochiai, Yomiuri Giants. After four years without a pennant, the Giants won the Series in 2004 and the league in 2006 after Ochiai became Japan's first major free agent signing.

6. Takahiro Arai. Hanshin gave up a lot to get him, but Arai has been a top contributor for a pennant contender.

7. Motonobu Tanishige, Chunichi Dragons. Since 2002, Tanishige has created more total value than any other catcher other than Shinnosuke Abe of the Giants and current Tiger Kenji Jojima.

8. Hiroki Kokubo, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Proof that you can go home again, Kokubo has had four solid seasons since leaving the Giants in 2007 to return to Fukuoka.

9. Kazuhiro Kiyohara, Yomiuri Giants. Although he became injury prone as a Giant and never won a home run or RBI title, Kiyohara was still a valuable player.

10. Naoyuki Omura, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The outfielder makes the list because of his career year in 2006 at the age of 30.

No discussion of quality free agents would be complete, however, without mentioning the remarkable Kimiyasu Kudo, twice a valuable free agent signing.

In 1995, Kudo left the Lions for the Hawks. Four years later, he was the first player to win an MVP Award after joining a team as a free agent. After helping the Hawks to their first Series title in 35 years that autumn, Kudo jumped to the Giants, with whom he won the Series two times in three years.

Combine the value from both Kudo signings and he's in the Top 10.

Ironically, free agency terminated Kudo's Giants tenure in 2006. Taken as compensation by the BayStars when the Giants signed right-hander Ken Kadokura, Kudo was useful in Yokohama, while Kadokura proved to be a Kyojin calamity.


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