When the World Baseball Classic starts on Wednesday in Taiwan, two competitions will be taking place, one between teams chasing world baseball bragging rights and the other between Major League Baseball scouts trying to get the best read on future international prospects, of which Japan has a bunch.
Samurai Japan's bid for its first WBC championship since it won the first two in 2006 and 2009 will be closely watched by scouts and MLB executives gauging individuals' potential.
While a few names on the team have carried across the Pacific into the awareness of 30 MLB general managers, there are another three players whose future could be now in the WBC.
Every GM knows of 23-year-old Triple Crown-winning slugger Munetaka Murakami, 21-year-old perfect-game pitcher Roki Sasaki, and 24-year-old Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but the tournament could impact the overseas prospects of three older stars.
Two are smaller left-handed pitchers, Rakuten Eagles closer Yuki Matsui and DeNA BayStars ace Shota Imanaga, and the other Japan's premier defensive shortstop, the Seibu Lions' Sosuke Genda.
Matsui is expected to move this year or next and a successful tournament followed by a good season could raise his value significantly.
"A lot of teams like him, and so the time is now. He's an unusual pitcher and that works in his favor," one scout told Kyodo News.
Another said there are questions about the viability of 174-centimeter Matsui, who has 197 career saves, ninth most in Japanese pro baseball, at the age of 27.
"He's been a dominant closer in Japan but it will be interesting if his pitches will play against MLB hitters," he said. "The fastball is a concern...so how he does in the WBC could tell us more than we now know."
Imanaga and Genda seem to have as many detractors as fans among MLB scouts, and if either does really well, that could be a ticket to a contract in the United States.
Scouts appreciate the 29-year-old, 178-centimeter Imanaga's consistency, command and ability to make batters miss a fastball that is, by MLB standards, underpowered at an average of just 91.5 miles per hour in 2022.
"He'll need to show that he's not just a finesse pitcher," a scout said. "If he challenges major league hitters and gets them out, that will earn him some credibility, make some teams think he might make it in MLB."
"If on the other hand, he hangs a couple of changeups that get hit for home runs and gives up four runs in three innings, some teams will just think he only gets outs because he pitches in Japan."
Genda, who turned 30 in February, has his positives. He has won the Pacific League's last five Golden Gloves at shortstop, but MLB teams still need to be convinced he has enough of an arm to play the position in the States.
The Lions captain is an excellent, speedy base runner with 155 career steals and is good at putting the bat on the ball, but he is not often facing the kind of fastball velocity he would see in MLB.
"If Genda drives some good pitches, especially MLB-caliber fastballs, and shows some real flair in the field, then one of those teams that like him may be willing to take a chance," one scout said.
Another player who might create some interest among MLB teams is 20-year-old Chunichi Dragons right-hander Hiroto Takahashi, although with really young players many years removed from a possible MLB move, this year's WBC will not be a make-or-break opportunity.
"Those guys like Takahashi, they can raise eyebrows, but they're so many years away that their stock can really plunge in the meantime," said one scout who expects the whole Japan team to be a surprise to some in MLB.
The scout added that he loved the WBC's ability to show MLB types how good the game can be outside North America, and joked that some teams may get so excited by Samurai Japan's pitching that they may try to sign every Japanese player they can find.
"People in MLB have a tendency to underestimate the quality of Japan's leagues," he said. "I'm guessing some team seeing (Orix Buffaloes reliever) Yuki Udagawa for the first time, might wonder if it can somehow acquire Orix's entire bullpen."
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