TOKYO -- Now that Ichiro Suzuki's season is over, the search for the next Japanese baseball sensation is on. It won't be easy finding one to match the quality of the Seattle Mariners' star.
''Ichiro is by no means your average Japanese player,'' said Masaru Madate, head of baseball operations of Japan Professional Baseball.
In his first season in the United States, Suzuki set a rookie record with 242 hits, stole 56 bases and hit .350, adding the AL batting title to the seven he won with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan.
The next Japanese position player to sign with a major league team is more likely to be in the mold of outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who moved to the New York Mets after 10 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers. Shinjo batted .268 with 10 home runs and 56 RBIs in his first major league season.
With the success of Ichiro and Shinjo, many Japanese players are thinking that they can follow.
Switch-hitting shortstop Kazuo Matsui of the Seibu Lions batted .308 with 24 homers, 76 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. He isn't eligible for free-agent status until 2003 but could be made available next season through a posting system that allows Japanese clubs to sell the negotiating rights for their players to major league teams.
The BlueWave made a cool $13 million by selling Suzuki's rights to the Mariners and Seibu owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, once one of the richest men in the world, has said he may be willing to part with his superstar shortstop if the price is right.
Hideki Matsui of the Yomiuri Giants, nicknamed ''Godzilla,'' led the Central League in homers in 1998 (34) and 2000 (42). He had 36 this season, second only to former major leaguer Roberto Petagine, who had 39 for the Central League-champion Yakult Swallows.
Matsui turned down a multiyear contract offer this year from the Giants, signing a one-year deal that will allow him to become a free agent in 2002.
Bobby Valentine, who managed the Lotte Marines in 1995 and returned to Japan with the Mets to open the 2000 season, has expressed interest in the Yomiuri slugger.
Of all the Japanese prospects, the most likely player to sign with a major league team next season is Swallows pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii. He has openly expressed his intent to play in the majors and the Swallows have said they may post him before he becomes a free agent in 2002.
The 28-year-old lefty, who gave up only one hit over eight innings in the Swallows' 7-0 victory in Game 1 of the Japan Series, throws in the mid-90s and went 12-6 this season with 173 strikeouts and a 3.93 ERA.
''He's a good pitcher,'' Boston Red Sox scout Ray Poitevint said. ''But he's had some shoulder problems this season and has said he only wants to play on the West Coast.''
With Ichiro abroad, third baseman Norihiro Nakamura of the pennant-winning Kintetsu Buffaloes is the Pacific League's marquee player. He led the league with 39 homers in 2000, hit 46 this season and becomes a free agent after next season.
Tadahito Iguchi of the Daiei Hawks is a slick-fielding shortstop who has impressed major league scouts with his hustle and poise.
Iguchi had 30 home runs, 97 RBIs and 44 steals this season. He still needs four seasons to become a free agent but the Hawks could post him and there's plenty of interest.
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