After the events that took place on 9/11, people were unsure as to when baseball in New York should resume, but everyone was happy that it was back when it did return. Who will ever forget the bottom of the 8th on September 21st, 2001, when Mike Piazza hit that home run off of Steve Karsay. It didn't matter if you were a Mets fan, a Yankees fan, or, hell, even a Braves fan, but everyone was rooting for that one to go yard, and when it did, everyone went crazy. As Howie Rose noted so poignantly, a week or so after 9/11, having lost almost 350 brothers-in-arms, baseball brought smiles to firefighters.
On April 12th, a few days from now, the NPB season will begin, on a modified schedule until May. The Chiba Lotte Marines (the defending NPB champions) and the Rakuten Golden Eagles are slated to start out the season (The Yokohama BayStars and the Chunichi Dragons play a game at the same time). The Eagles represent the city of Sendai, which was hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan weeks ago. Miyagi Baseball Stadium, home to the Eagles, was badly damaged in the catastrophe. Hopefully, just as baseball was somewhat therapeutic for New York, hopefully the 2011 NPB season can be somewhat therapeutic for the millions and millions of Japanese who were adversely affected by what happened.
Though completely independent from Major League Baseball, things that happen in Japan can have an impact on things that happen in the MLB, either in the present or in the future. Here's a few of the more interesting, more relevant "storylines to watch":
Of course. Yu Darvish. The golden child. Every year, every off-season, there's a Yu Darvish watch. Will he ask to be posted, and come to the MLB this season? Last year, sources indicated that he might, but he never did. Plenty of signs thus far hint to the fact that he might ask to be posted after the 2011 season- cryptically saying "the situation has changed" back in December, signing only a one-year extension with the Nippon Ham Fighters, repeatedly mentioning that he'll be a Nippon Ham Fighter for another year (as opposed to an indeterminate amount of time into the future), and the fact that his divorce with Saeko, his now ex-wife, is now finalized - but none of that necessarily means jack.
Darvish, of course, had a good 2010 season, and has continued that success throughout spring camp. In early March, he cut a bullpen session short and skipped a start because of some elbow discomfort, but has since been deemed completely healthy. He's purposefully put on some weight, as to be able to increase his fastball velocity (a sign that he might already be conditioning himself to be able to handle the longer MLB season), and has been working on his off-speed pitches. If Darvish has another good season- really, it's more like when, rather than if- he should be in line for a nice payday, should he cross the Pacific. He'd definitely be the cream of the crop of Free Agent pitching for next off-season, and there's no team in the MLB that wouldn't want him pitching every fifth day.
For those of you who don't remember, Hisashi Iwakuma was posted by his team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, on October 4th, 2010. The Oakland A's won the posting rights to negotiate with Iwakuma and his agent, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement in time, negating Oakland's bid and causing him to revert back to the Eagles. The three-time All-Star will be turning 30 on April 12th, and will be turning 31 going into the 2012 MLB season. What makes Iwakuma a story to watch is that, although he failed to work out a contract with Oakland (the first time this happened in the relatively short history of the current posting system), he will be an international free agent when the 2011 season is over, meaning that MLB teams will be able to sign him directly, instead of bidding for the rights to negotiate a contract with him. Given the fact that he already expressed interest playing in America, and had his team post him, it's almost a lock that Iwakuma will attempt to sign with an MLB team.
An injury plagued 2006 and 2007 limited his ability to play (but not his effectiveness when playing), but Iwakuma rebounded with a strong 2008 season that won him the Eiji Sawamura Award. His 2009 and 2010 seasons weren't as strong, but they were very solid, and very respectable. Depending on how he does in 2011, he might have four consecutive strong seasons to his credit. Coupled with his age, and the relatively weak crop of Free Agent starting pitchers next winter, Iwakuma could represent an intriguing option for many an MLB team. He was unable to work out a contract with Oakland last winter because he wanted a "Barry Zito contract", so to speak, in terms of money and length. Given the fact that Billy Beane didn't particularly lowball him, it is likely that Iwakuma will return with a more modest asking price, in terms of both contract length and actual salary.
He of the unicorn is year two of a two-year deal that he inked with the Hanshin Tigers back in 2009. Murton had a very good 2006 season, but just was never really able to keep it going. Diminished playtime and being bounced around in trades further complicated things, but he finally put everything back together in 2010, when he set an NPB record of 214 hits, breaking Ichiro Suzuki's previous mark of 211. In all, Murton hit .349/.395/.499, with 17 home runs in 613 at-bats. Can he continue the success?
I don't think anybody expects Murton to put up such gaudy numbers in the Majors, should he sign with an MLB club when his contract with Hanshin expires at the end of this year. Do his NPB numbers demonstrate that he "figured it out", and that he'd be able to take some fraction of his success to America? Possibly. Colby Lewis was able to turn the success he had in Japan into success in the MLB, posting relatively good numbers in 2010 for the American League Champion Texas Rangers after having pitched two years in Japan, with the Hiroshima Carp. Murton isn't particularly young (he isn't a spring chicken either, though), is a decent fielder, and gets on base pretty often.
The Taiwanese-born lefty was vocal during the winter about his desire to play in the MLB, and according to Chunichi Sports, the Chunichi Dragons are willing to let him go after his one-year contract expires at the end of the season. Because Chen is a foreign player, and was signed as an amateur free agent, the normal posting rules do not apply to him, and he can explore an MLB career whenever he sees fit, on the condition that he is a free agent. Because of some contractual snafus and shady dealings on the part of the Dragons' front office, they can either comply with Chen's requests to be released or have the issue go to court, where they'd likely lose their player anyway, and lose face in the process.
Chen is very, very intriguing. The lefty will be turning 25 in July this season, and will just be entering into his prime when he's set to reach U.S. shores. Since debuting as a fulltime pitcher in 2008, Chen has been among the more dominant pitchers in the league. He sports, over that time, an average ERA of 2.83, with a BB/9 that has been trending down (average of 2.4 per nine), and a strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine (which, has also been trending downwards slightly). Unfortunately, Chen injured his left adductor muscle earlier in February, and will be out for approximately eight weeks, meaning that he won't be ready for the start of the season. He has since begun throwing without pain, and is looking to make his 2011 debut a few weeks into the season, where he'll be making up for lost time.