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THE HOT CORNER: Jury out on bulked-up Buffaloes

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THE HOT CORNER: Jury out on bulked-up Buffaloes

by Jim Allen / Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter (Jan 17, 2008)

Only one thing might keep Tuffy Rhodes from being considered last year's most productive foreign player--and that is that he no longer counts as one. But while Rhodes doesn't figure into Orix's quota for foreigners, his figures in the record book were impressive.

And since he's still expected to go through one of the foreigners' lines at airport immigration, Rhodes has to qualify as Japan's top foreign gun.

Buffaloes third baseman Greg LaRocca was the second most valuable foreign player in the country last year, so manager Terry Collins' problems had nothing to do with Orix's foreign market acumen. The problem was that after those top two sluggers, Collins' club quickly ran out of valuable performers.

Orix, whose fifth most valuable player was right-hander Tom Davey, went for a full house of veteran foreign talent in the offseason with the acquisitions of first baseman Alex Cabrera and right-hander Jeremy Powell.

Powell is coming off a 1-1/2-year nightmare with the Yomiuri Giants in which he couldn't win when he pitched well and then got hurt. Cabrera, a longtime friend of Rhodes', hit 273 home runs in seven seasons with the Seibu Lions, but his power has shriveled since breaking his right arm in the spring of 2004.

Both have the potential to be key performers, but whether that is enough to lift Orix out of the basement is another issue. Rhodes had a super season following a year off for injury, but will be hard-pressed to repeat that effort at the age of 39. The Buffs could have the country's best foreign legion and finish last yet again.

It may seem ironic that one could have the best foreigners in the league but the worst record, but the Tokyo Yakult Swallows accomplished the feat in the Central League, as well. Although Yakult's best player is Norichika Aoki, the next three in terms of 2007 value were: left fielder Alex Ramirez, right-hander Seth Greisinger and right fielder Aaron Guiel. The Swallows could have had even more punch in 2007, but gave up on LaRocca a year ago.

With Ramirez and Greisinger moving to Tokyo Dome this year, the Giants will likely have the CL's best foreign contingent and will most likely not finish last. Whether it is enough to help Yomiuri survive the playoffs is another question.

The Buffaloes' and Swallows' tales are nothing new, and their plight will strike a chord with longtime Yokohama fans. The Whales and BayStars made a tradition of it: excelling at getting extreme mileage out of foreign players while failing badly to develop home-grown talent.

The BayStars in those days suffered from the same symptoms that afflict many pro ball clubs the world over--the meddling of well-meaning but incompetent owners.

A lot of owners don't understand organizational limitations--particularly the need of small-market clubs to fine-tune farm systems and give jobs to able and ambitious young players. The managers on these clubs have to pick the battles they can win within their organizations if they are going to have a positive impact in league standings.

Powell, who will be 32 and has a career 67-59 record, is a good bet to bounce back with Orix, and Cabrera brings a solid bat, the Buffaloes' problems are numerous and the acquisitions will certainly raise expectations. Whether the club can match them or not is a major issue.

Collins wants to win as badly as anyone, but his hope is to build the farm team into a talent-generating machine that turns the franchise around. This approach requires discipline and patience and runs counter to the wants of Orix's obsessive-compulsive, we-should-win-now whiners.

Mike Brown, who did a good job as Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitching coach, could be a big help in getting Orix's promising pitching staff in gear. Unfortunately the club's fielding is still suspect.

Collins' foreign crew will add to the win column and may even get the Buffaloes out of last place. But these guys have nothing to do with Orix's' future success. About the only way they can really help is if their extra wins take the organization's doubters off the skipper's back.

Collins came to Kansai to rebuild the Buffaloes. One hopes the offseason shopping spree won't distract the organization from tackling that mission.

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