The big news last week was that the Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association decided to compete in next year’s World Baseball Classic.
The next challenge two-time defending champion Japan faces may come when it’s time to actually fill out the roster.
The timing of the WBC, in early March, during MLB spring training, could prove problematic for a few of Japan’s top players.
The main target for Samurai Japan’s team-builders will be Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish. The elephant in the room, however, could be Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s hip circa 2009.
Matsuzaka was the MVP of the 2009 WBC — an honor teammate Hisashi Iwakuma deserved more, but that’s a different story — then suffered through an injury-riddled season for the Boston Red Sox, making just 12 starts and finishing 4-6 with a 5.76 ERA in 59⅓ innings.
Matsuzaka later revealed he’d initially injured himself during training for the WBC and pitched with the injury during the tournament, all without the knowledge of the Red Sox medical staff.
The Red Sox were still in the midst of an investment of over $100 million in Matsuzaka and popular sentiment in Boston was that the team got damaged goods in 2009 because of Matsuzaka’s exertions in the WBC.
Which brings us to Darvish.
Darvish is enduring the rigors of an MLB schedule for the first time, and the Rangers may not be particularly anxious to see him pitching for Japan in the spring.
Remember, Matsuzaka in 2009 already had two major league seasons (and seven postseason starts) under his belt, and even then there seemed to be a tacit level of uncertainty in New England about his participation.
And that was before the era of Stephen Strasburg and the increased attention paid to how many innings young pitchers, with hefty price tags, throw. Darvish has tossed 169⅔ innings so far this year and probably has one or two more regular-season starts before the postseason begins.
Unless he’s injured, Texas can’t bar Darvish from competing, but after spending over $110 to acquire him, the team would probably prefer the innings logged on his arm come in a Rangers uniform.
Darvish was mum on the subject last week when it was announced Japan would compete.
Similarly, prospective free agents such as Hiroyuki Nakajima will have a choice to make.
Nakajima, currently the Seibu Lions’ shortstop, is expected to pursue a job with a MLB club over the winter, but would he, or a player in a similar situation, be willing to cut his first-ever spring training in the States short to help Japan retain its title?
Matsuzaka and Mariners pitcher Iwakuma might also be on the hunt for new contracts and may deem it in their best interests to save their arms for MLB competition.
Major League teams in the past have expressed hesitance about having their star players risk injury prior to the season, and though Derek Jeter and many other All-Stars competed in both the 2006 and 2009 editions of the WBC, many have also passed.
There’s also the question of what to do with Ichiro Suzuki. The 38-year-old Yankees outfielder is inarguably on the decline, though still a skilled player, and Japan’s next manager will have to decide if he still warrants a starting job, or if the team is stronger with a younger player patrolling the outfield, with Ichiro’s legendary status only making the choice that much harder.
Japan cleared perhaps the biggest hurdle toward a third straight title by getting the JPBPA on board, but for a team that doesn’t even have a manager yet the fun has just begun.