It sounds as though former Fukuoka Softbank Hawks' shortstop Munenori Kawasaki is going to get his wish. The NPB Free Agent stated his preference to play in the United States in a press conference a few weeks ago...but only for the Seattle Mariners. According to Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, Kawasaki is currently in town with his wife and he, and not Yu Darvish, will likely be joining the Mariners organization soon on what figures to be a minor league contract.
Kawasaki has trained with Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki in the past during off-seasons and was also his teammate on the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic teams for WBC Champion Japan. He and Ichiro share the same agent, Tony Attanasio, too. As reported by NPB Tracker's Patrick Newman, Mariners scout Yasushi Yamamoto liked what he saw of Kawasaki in June.
"I’m grading him higher than (Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi) Nishioka and (New York Yankees minor leaguer Hiroyuki) Nakajima in baserunning and defense. If he can hit .250 in the Majors that will be enough (to play regularly)." said the scout that has spent the past seven seasons in Japan for Seattle.
Of course, coming off of a season where he hit just .267 in Japan, hitting .250 in the majors may not be in the cards for Munenori, who is very Ichiro-like in his slap-hitting, swing-at-everything style (his nickname "Satsuro" is partly because of Ichiro). That said, even though his career high in extra base hits is just 31, Kawasaki has hit .300 or better in five of the last eight seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball. He is a several-time All-Star (conflicting reports, but at least four) and two-time gold glove winner at shortstop. He's also played second and third base (which he played in the WBC).
Here is more from Patrick on Kawasaki:
"Mune-rin" profiles as an MLB utility infielder, so I'll start with his glove. I think he has pretty good range and pretty good hands, but his arm is rather weak and would get exposed if he were to play every day on the left side of the infield.The last time I saw him play was in this season's Japan Series, and he made a number of good plays on some bad turf bounces. Kawasaki's first regular playing time in Japan was back in 2003 at 3B, so he's played there, and I know I've seen him at 2B but I don't know how much he's actually played there. He should be respectable all over the infield.
At the plate he's never been more than a singles/contact hitter. He used to be tougher to strikeout but glancing at his stats he's k'ed 84 or more times in each of the last three years. I don't recall why his 2009 numbers were bad, I thought he was injured but that was actually 2007 and 2008. Look at the stats though, he had 43 sac bunts that season, so maybe that had something to do with it. In 2011, NPB introduced a new ball, which dramatically reduced offense league wide. Smaller guys with less pop like Kawasaki were affected the most.
I'm sure this has come out already, but Kawasaki idolizes Ichiro. Kawasaki has worn #52 since turning pro, because it's the number after Ichiro. He's trained with Ichiro in the offseason for several years now.
He also has his own website, which you can find here (if you speak/read Japanese, let me know how it is).
This is the ultimate in "low-risk" signings, and if Kawasaki can perform defensively at shortstop at a major league level then he will be an upgrade from what the M's have as in-house options right now and stands a real chance of making the roster out of Spring Training. He really teed himself up for the Mariners' Front Office here, and they are at least taking a swing. Good to see. And who knows, perhaps having his understudy on the team might inspire Ichiro to great things.
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For the best coverage of all things Japanese Baseball, follow Patrick on Twitter at @npbtracker and check out his website at NPBTracker.com.