Free Agent Itoi Lands!

Veteran Outfielder Reportedly to Earn ¥1.8 Billion over 4 Years

itoi

The headline can be abbreviated “F.A.I.L.” but this acquisition should, at least for the immediate future, be seen as a successful endeavor. The day teams were free to negotiate with new free agents, Tomoaki Kanemoto jumped at the opportunity to meet with former Orix Buffaloes outfielder Yoshio Itoi. This came as no surprise to anyone, as Hanshin struggled at the plate with run production all year. Itoi, who turned 35 at the end of July, has some similarities to Kanemoto. Both are outfielders by trade (though Itoi was drafted as a pitcher by the Nippon Ham Fighters). Both are serious about keeping themselves in top physical shape. And now, both have been lured to Hanshin by a manager entering his second season at the helm. In both cases, too, it was the manager’s power of persuasion that lured the free agent to the club.

In Kanemoto’s case, then-Hanshin manager was extremely persistent, even forceful with his words. Kanemoto half-jokes that he was bullied into signing on the dotted line. In Itoi’s case, he says he was struck by the passion with which Kanemoto spoke.

itoiorixThis is what Itoi had this to say through a club spokesperson: “I have decided after agonizing about this for a long time, to start afresh with the Hanshin Tigers. It took me a long time and a lot of thought to reach this conclusion. I really feel like my 4 seasons with the Orix Buffaloes helped me improve my game a lot. The club and my teammates gave me a good environment to play in, it was easy to concentrate on the game, and as I think about them I feel a lump in my throat. I’m also filled with thanksgiving for the Orix fans who cheered me on no matter what the circumstances. But as I think about all of that, I feel as though the best way for me to improve as a baseball player is to experience a change. As I shake my circumstances up and take on this new challenge, I really feel like I can improve my game even more. Most of all, though, my heart was struck by Coach Kanemoto’s passion, and I have decided to join the Hanshin Tigers. I will do everything I can to be quickly accepted as part of the team by Hanshin fans, and I hope we can all play hard together to make Coach Kanemoto ‘The Man.’ I look forward to playing for Hanshin.”

For his part, Kanemoto had this to say: “I think Koshien Stadium will suit him well. We’re bringing him here to help us win the pennant. I hope he shows us his spirit. I want him to be a role model to the guys. I think he will have a positive effect on the young guys. There’s no need for him to hold back. I hope he breaks out and runs as wild and free as he wants to.”

Itoi has a lot of accomplishments under his belt already. He had the PL’s top batting average in 2014, has had the most doubles twice, the highest on-base percentage three times, and led the league in stolen bases in 2016 with 53. He also has 7 Golden Gloves for his work in right field, and was named to the PL’s Best Nine 4 times. It looks as though he could supplant Kosuke Fukudome in right, while the team’s new elder-statesman moves to the infield to play first base. (Fukudome was drafted as a shortstop and should adjust to the right corner of the infield just find, given his baseball sense.) Itoi’s number has yet to be announced, but he wore #7 with Orix. There’s a chance that Tsuyoshi Nishioka surrenders his number for the newcomer.

Here are Itoi’s career stats, for those who are curious.

Year Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
2007 Fighters 7 11 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 .091 .091 .091 .182
2008 Fighters 63 188 19 45 14 1 5 21 11 53 13 3 .239 .285 .404 .689
2009 Fighters 131 425 74 130 40 3 15 58 54 93 24 6 .306 .381 .520 .901
2010 Fighters 138 488 86 151 33 3 15 64 73 94 26 8 .309 .407 .482 .889
2011 Fighters 137 489 72 156 30 0 11 54 61 91 31 6 .319 .411 .448 .859
2012 Fighters 134 510 72 155 21 3 9 48 77 86 22 9 .304 .404 .410 .813
2013 Buffaloes 141 524 75 157 33 2 17 61 67 93 33 9 .300 .384 .468 .852
2014 Buffaloes 140 502 73 166 36 2 19 81 77 73 31 9 .331 .424 .524 .948
2015 Buffaloes 132 484 61 127 22 0 17 68 74 78 11 4 .262 .366 .413 .779
2016 Buffaloes 143 532 79 163 24 1 17 70 80 84 53 17 .306 .398 .451 .849
NPB Career 1166 4153 612 1251 253 15 125 525 574 746 245 71 .301 .392 .460 .852

UPDATE (11/22): Tsuyoshi Nishioka posted on Facebook that he will wear #5 next season. Looks more and more like #7 will go to Itoi. Also, the Tigers have 2 weeks to submit a list of their 28 protected players to the commissioner’s office. (Click here for an explanation of the free agency system in NPB.) Should the Buffaloes choose the money + player option, they will have 40 days to make their choice from Hanshin’s unprotected players, and to sign him to a deal.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.

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