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01/30/08 10:00 AM ET

Which Japanese talent will shine in '08?

Overseas imports have grabbed spotlight since Nomo's arrival

As Hideo Nomo, who was invited by the Royals to Surprise, Ariz., for another stab at resurrecting his pitching career, returns to the Major League orbit, he may start every day by shaking his head in amazement.

The intriguing right-hander from Osaka, Japan, now 39, could also keep reminding himself, "Look what I've wrought!" The big league melting pot has dramatically changed since The Tornado twisted himself into a Dodgers uniform in 1995, quickly morphing from guinea pig to pioneer.

The rosters of 40 percent of Major League teams now include players from Japan. There were three Japanese natives in the most recent World Series, six in the most recent postseason. The assimilation is full throttle: Including nonroster guests such as Nomo, more than 20 Japanese natives will be in camps from Arizona to Florida.

Many of them are established big league stars, from the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees' Hideki Matsui. But their ranks also include the new wave, the latest to put reputations on the line when they cross the foul line.

There are two significant differences between this winter's influx and that of a year ago. Then, "posting process" was on everyone's lips as big league clubs bid for negotiating rights to several younger Japanese players made available by Japanese clubs which still had control over them. And a pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, topped the list.

This time, whether coincidentally or in conscious response to the controversial posting process, MLB clubs exclusively pursued more veteran Japanese who had earned unconditional free agency. And the biggest magnet was an outfielder, Kosuke Fukudome.

So another stage is set, but there is no telling how the performance will unfold. Dice-K was expected to be the star last season and, while he got good reviews with his 15 wins, the show was virtually stolen by someone else on his own staff -- lefty reliever Hideki Okajima.

So, your cast of leading men:

OF Kosuke Fukudome, Chicago Cubs
He will wear No. 1, and he is No. 1. There really is no other uniform Fukudome (careful: it's pronounced Foo-ka-doe-may) could wear. The 30-year-old veteran of nine seasons with the Chunichi Dragons becomes the Cubs' first Japanese player, a status he expressly wanted and which influenced his choice among the dozen teams that pitched for him.

How close to the 30-year-old's heart is this whole deal? He welcomed a new son a couple of weeks after signing with the Cubs and named him Hayato which, according to Japanese linguists, is a blend of "Windy City" and "uniform number 1."

There is no mystery why Fukudome wore Cubs general manager Jim Hendry's bull's-eye from the outset, he is considered the ideal right-field complement to Alfonso Soriano and Felix Pie. Hendry's scouting report: "We feel he's a high-average guy, high on-base percentage, well-above-average base runner, Gold Glove-caliber fielder with a great arm."

He is also a hitter who swings from the left side ... last season, the Cubs got a total of 27 homers from lefty hitters, and 14 of those dingers (by Jacque Jones and Cliff Floyd) have moved on. In Japan, Fukudome won two batting titles (including in 2002, when he denied Hideki Matsui a Triple Crown by edging him .343-.334), and was the 2006 Central League MVP. He is a .305 career hitter who averaged 29 homers in a four-year span through 2006.

Incidentally, published statistical references to Fukudome always seem to drop off at 2006, because last season he dipped to 13 homers and 48 RBIs while being limited to 269 at-bats by a right (throwing) elbow injury that required surgery. The condition of the elbow is no longer an issue.

RHP Hiroki Kuroda, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers are hoping for a second strike of the Osaka lightning from this 32-year-old right-hander who shares Nomo's hometown. Fukudome may have raised the biggest stir and boldest headlines, but Kuroda triggered the biggest commotion. As many as 20 teams showed an interest in the hard-thrower with impeccable control.

Kuroda parlayed the competition into a hefty raise, signing a three-year deal for $35.3 million after earning less than $3 million in his swan season with the Hiroshima Carp. His modest Japanese numbers -- 103 wins in 11 seasons, with a 3.69 ERA -- are mitigated by circumstances and tools.

He spent half his time on the mound in claustrophobia-inducing Shimin Stadium, with its 300-foot corners and 386 feet to dead center. The Dodgers were more interested in the 96-mph heater that tops a repertoire that also includes a mid-80s forkball and a slider, and and going the distance 74 times in 244 career starts that earned him the Nippon nickname of "Mr. Complete Game."

RHP Masahide Kobayashi, Cleveland Indians
The entire Japanese trail, of course, began 44 years ago, with relief pitcher Masanori Murakami, and among those retracing those steps this spring is Kobayashi, whose own trail is well-worn. The 33-year-old righty has saved 20-plus games in seven straight seasons, and the Indians consider him the ideal partner for setup man Rafael Betancourt, and a possible occasional substitute for closer Joe Borowski.

Like any successful reliever, Kobayashi brings an out pitch, in his case the slider. Unlike the typical short man, though, he mixes in a couple of other pitches (mid-90s fastball and two-seamer) with equal confidence. Another Japanese staple -- a deceptive delivery, made famous most recently by Okajima's no-look windup.

With AL saves-leader Borowski back on call, however, Kobayashi's season figures to fall short of Meikyukai caliber. That would be Japan's Golden Players Club for those with 2,000 hits or 200 wins or 250 saves; Kobayashi stands at 227.

RHP Yasuhiko Yabuta, Kansas City Royals
Relief pitchers have most consistently made a sensational Japan-to-MLB transition (Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Takashi Saito, Okajima) and Yabuta is another right-hander expected to mirror that success. That expectation appears widespread: Even though he is 34, Baseball America ranks him No. 9 among Royals prospects.

Yabuta spent all of his 12-year career with the Chiba Lotte Marines in the gray: Sometimes starting and sometimes closing, but mostly pitching in long relief. He has progressively gotten better in that role, with a 2.70 ERA in 222 games across the last four seasons.

That places him in the minority of Japanese players washing up on our shores: Not a superstar, but a respectable veteran reaching for the highest level. He wormed into the minds of big league people during the 2006 World Baseball Classic, by striking out the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Derrek Lee.

RHP Kazuo Fukumori, Texas Rangers
It is an ultimate sign of progress, and of regarding Japanese not as sensational marquee grabbers but as basic ingredients, when marginal players begin enhancing rosters. So it is with another reliever brought to The Show by the Rangers.

Fukumori, a 31-year-old right-hander who immediately becomes a key cog in manager Ron Washington's overhauled bullpen, doesn't have a resume that glows. In 12 seasons of pitching primarily relief for Yokohama, Osaka and Tohoku Rakuten, he had a record of 34-42, with consistently fewer strikeouts than innings pitched.

But the Rangers regard him a flexible option in their bullpen, from where half of last season's 42 saves are gone. Lefty C.J. Wilson has first dibs on the back of the pen, but Fukumori provides the club with veteran insurance.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.