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Where EAST meets the Northwest


Kolten Wong. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Kenta Maeda. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

PRODUCTIVE PLAYERS. Asian baseball players are making a difference across Major League Baseball (MLB). Hawai‘i-born Kolten Wong has played intermittently for the St. Louis Cardinals over the past five seasons, but he’s now their starting second baseman. Wong strikes out rarely, draws walks well, and picks up a homer now and again. Prized Nippon Professional Baseball import Kenta Maeda arrived to MLB with high expectations last season, and he did not disappoint. Maeda started hot before cooling off, but he still finished with a 16-11 record, striking out more than a batter per inning.

Shin-Soo Choo. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Koji Uehara. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

MAJOR-LEAGUE TALENT. Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo of the Texas Rangers safely reaches second base in a Major League Baseball (MLB) game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Arlington, Texas. Unlike most Asian players, Korea-born Choo has spent his entire pro career in America. Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Koji Uehara pitches during the seventh inning of a MLB game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh. The Cubs bolstered its bullpen this year with Uehara, who has pitched for four different MLB clubs since coming from Nippon Professional Baseball in 2009.

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #11 (June 5, 2017), pages 7 & 11.

Asian players now in nearly every division in the majors

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

After more than 20 years of imports from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) to Major League Baseball (MLB), the 2017 season features Asia-born players in nearly every division.

We start in the National League East, where the Miami Marlins have three Asian players. At 43 years old, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki hopes to play in MLB until he’s 50, adding to his more than 3,000 career hits. With his renowned workout regimen, he just might.

On the mound for Miami, Taiwan’s Wei-Yin Chen began his MLB career in 2012. After pitching respectably with the Baltimore Orioles for four years, Chen signed with Miami in 2016. Though he won’t ever be a top-flight pitcher, Chen should pave the way for future Taiwanese MLB talent.

Lately, Marlins bullpen addition Junichi Tazawa hasn’t looked like the pitcher who made waves by skipping the 2008 NPB draft. From 2012 to 2014, Tazawa was Boston’s supremely successful setup man until he started walking batters and giving up homers. If he regains his control and keeps the ball down, Tazawa could become a high-leverage Miami reliever.

In the National League Central, Chinese American Kolten Wong is the only player featured in this MLB roundup who was born in the United States. Wong has played intermittently for the St. Louis Cardinals over the past five seasons, but he’s now their starting second baseman. He strikes out rarely, draws walks well, and picks up a homer now and again. That won’t make Wong, who was born in Hawai‘i, a star, but it will bolster the St. Louis offense for a playoff push.

Of more importance to the Cardinals will be closer Seung-hwan Oh, who came to St. Louis last season. In the KBO and NPB, Oh was called "Stone Buddha" and "Final Boss" for his unshakeable demeanor and amazing ability to close games.

Oh lived up to both nicknames last season, stepping into the closer’s role and reeling off 19 saves with a 1.92 Earned Run Average (ERA). Despite his heroics, the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. If St. Louis returns to the postseason, they’ll need Oh to repeat his dominant 2016 season.

The Cardinals finished last season behind the Chicago Cubs, who went on to win their first World Series since 1908. This year, Chicago bolstered its bullpen with Koji Uehara, who has pitched for four different MLB clubs since coming from NPB in 2009.

Uehara enjoyed his greatest success with Boston, amassing 79 saves in four seasons, including 2013, one of the best seasons ever by a reliever. That year, Uehara finished with a 1.09 ERA and a nearly untouchable 0.565 Walks & Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP), retiring 37 straight batters at one point. Uehara helped Boston win its eighth World Series championship, and Chicago hopes he will help them win their second straight.

In the National League West, the Los Angeles Dodgers boast two great Asian talents in Hyun-jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda. The first KBO starting pitcher to come to MLB, Ryu won 28 games in his first two seasons with a combined 3.19 ERA and 293 strikeouts. Elbow and shoulder surgeries shelved Ryu for parts of 2015 and 2016. Hopefully 2017 will be his first full season in three years; the Dodgers need him to resume his winning ways.

Prized NPB import Maeda arrived with high expectations last season, and he did not disappoint. Maeda started hot before cooling off, but he still finished with a 16-11 record, striking out more than a batter per inning. These two Asian arms are part of a deep Dodgers rotation that’s among the best in baseball.

Over in the American League West, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and pitcher Yu Darvish return to the Texas Rangers.

Unlike most Asian players, the Korea-born Choo has spent his entire pro career in America. He played his peak years with Cleveland, and his performance has declined since he came to Texas in 2014. Injuries sidelined him, and his power has largely vanished, but his batting eye remains sharp, so he can still be a force for Texas — if he can stay healthy.

Yu Darvish has had similar injury woes, though he’s been far more productive when healthy. One of the most widely anticipated NPB arrivals ever, Darvish joined the Rangers in 2012, continuing his stellar career with three straight all-star seasons, including 2013, when he led the majors with 277 strikeouts.

Tommy John surgery knocked Darvish out for part of 2014 and all of 2015, and neck and back problems dogged him when he returned in 2016. If he’s healthy, Darvish and his unhittable pitching repertoire can lead Texas back to the playoffs.

Also in the American League West, the Houston Astros have a rarity in Norichika Aoki, an Asian position player who has endured in MLB. Aoki has played for five teams in five seasons, bringing his speed, ability to get on base, and good outfield defense. He made it to the World Series with the Royals in 2014; Houston hopes he can help them get there, too.

The Seattle Mariners, in the same division, have imported plenty of Japanese talent, including Hisashi Iwakuma. His solid but unspectacular numbers during 10 NPB seasons meant his 2012 signing was overshadowed by the Darvish acquisition. Yet Iwakuma has won 17 more games than Darvish through 2016, thanks to good health and exceptional control. These important traits should ensure the 36-year-old remains a valuable player for several more seasons.

The New York Yankees in the American League East have had some high-profile eastern busts, but the 2014 acquisition of Masahiro Tanaka has been successful through 2016. A top-notch NPB starting pitcher, Tanaka amassed a 39-16 record over three seasons in Yankee pinstripes, with an excellent 3.12 ERA and outstanding control. Tanaka has been the Yankees’ most dependable starting pitcher; they hope he’ll lead them back to their championship ways.

Last season’s resilience award goes to KBO veteran Hyun-soo Kim of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. After a poor spring training in his first Orioles season, Kim refused a minor-league assignment, preferring instead to work out his problems on the major-league bench. His decision paid off, as he worked his way into the starting lineup with a patient, high-contact approach. His skill and determination have ensured him a spot in the 2017 starting lineup.

Whether they’re playing for contenders or also-rans, Asian MLB players are making a difference across the league, lifting the hopes of Asian-American sports fans nationwide.

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