Since the influx of Asian born players to the Major Leagues in the mid 1990’s the New York Mets have had their fair share, 12 in all, from Japan and Korea. Unfortunately the Mets have yet to find a pearl from the Orient.
But the team continues to look for players overseas. This past Winter the Mets signed Ryota Igarashi to a two-year contract and Hisanori Takahashi to a minor league deals.
Igarashi will become the Mets right-handed setup man and bridge to closer Francisco Rodriguez in 2010. The Japanese born Igarashi pitched the last 11 seasons for the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League where he posted a 44-27 record with 51 saves while pitching exclusively out of the bullpen.
The 5’10 Takahashi pitched 10 years for the Yomiuri Giants. Last year he was 10-6 with a 2.94 ERA. His best season was 2007, when he posted a 14-4 record with a 2.75 ERA and made the Central League All-Star team. Takahashi will be under consideration for the fifth starter’s job this year for the Mets, but if he does not win that battle, the 24-yeaar old lefthander could still make the club as a reliever.
Igarashi and Takahashi will join the following list of Asian-born Mets in 2010:
Takashi Kashiwada (1997) While the rest of baseball was fawning over the Yankees signing of Japanese fireballer Hideki Irabu the New York Mets quietly purchased Kashiwada from the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Central League on April 3, 1997. On May 1, 1997 he became the first Japanese born player to play for the Mets when he pitched an inning of relief against the San Diego Padres. He would pitch the remainder of the season for the Mets finishing with a 3-1 record and 4.31 ERA. He returned to Japan following the 1997 season and finished his career with the Giants.
Masato Yoshii (1998-1999) After pitching over 10 years in Japan for the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Yakult Swallows where he was both a reliever and a starter and was named the Central League Relief Pitcher of the Year in 1988, Yoshii signed as a free agent with the Mets on January 13, 1998. He made his Mets debut on April 5, 1998 throwing seven shutout innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates to earn his first Major League victory. He finished the season with a 6-8 record and 3.93 ERA. In 1999 Yoshii had more success finishing with a 12-8 record to help the Mets reach the playoffs for the first time since 1988. In the National League Divisional Series, Yoshii pitched the first game of series earning a no-decision as the Mets defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks, 8-4. Yoshii would also pitch game one of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. In the NLCS he started two games and finished with a 0 -1 record as the Mets lost the series to the Braves. Following the 1999 season the Mets traded Yoshii to the Colorado Rockies where he pitched one season before finishing his Major League career with the Montreal Expos. Yoshii returned to Japan in 2003 and pitched five more seasons for the Orix Buffaloes and Chiba Lotte Marines.
Hideo Nomo (1998) The 1995 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner with the Dodgers, Nomo was traded to the Mets in the middle of the 1998 season. Unfortunately for the Mets he did not revert to his 1995 form. He finished the season 4-5 with a 4.82 ERA and was released by the Mets on March 26, 1999.
Tsuyoshi Shinjo (2001,2003). After 10 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, the Mets purchased Shinjo prior to the 2001 season. Known for his flamboyance, colorful wristbands, dyed hair, and unique hop as he caught the ball, Shinjo quickly became a fan favorite. In 2001 he hit .256 with 10 home runs and 56 RBI’s while playing solid defense in the outfield. Despite his popularity he was traded along with Desi Relaford to the San Francisco Giants for Shawn Estes during the offseason. While with San Francisco he became the first Japanese player to appear in the World Series. He returned to the Mets as a free agent in 2003 but did not have the same success and was demoted to Triple-A in the middle of the season. He returned to Japan following the season where he finished his career with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. In two seasons with the Mets, Shinjo hit .251 with 11 home runs and 63 RBI.
Satoru Komiyama (2002) Known as the Japanese Greg Maddux the Mets signed Komiyama as a free agent prior to the 2002. Unfortunately, he pitched more like Mike Maddux than Greg Maddux. In 25 games out of the bullpen Komiyama went 0-3 with a 5.61 ERA and was released following the season.
Jae Seo (2002-2005) The New York Mets signed Seo, a native of South Korea, as an amateur free agent on December 17, 1997. Reconstructive arm surgery derailed his career and he did not make his Major League debut until July 21, 2002, a one-inning relief appearance in a blowout loss to the Cincinnati Reds, making Seo the first Korean born player in Mets history. In 2003, Seo broke the Mets starting rotation. He posted a 14-22 record over two seasons (2003-04). After starting the 2005 season in the minor leagues, Seo returned to the majors and pitched effectively, posting an 8-2 record and 2.59 ERA in 14 games. The Mets traded Seo to the Los Angeles Dodgers for reliever Duaner Sanchez before the 2006 season. The deal surprised many at first but it turned out the Mets traded him at just the right time as Seo struggled over the next two seasons with the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He returned to his native South Korea to pitch for the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball League. In three plus seasons for the Mets, Seo posted a 22-24 record.
Kaz Matsui (2004-2006) Matsui played shortstop for the Seibu Lions from 1995 to 2003 where he was an All-Star, batting champion and Gold Glove Award winner. He also won the 1998 Most Valuable Player Award. The Mets signed Matsui as a free agent prior in 2004, certain they had found the cornerstone for a championship-caliber team. The Mets thought so highly of Matsui that they decided to move their prized rookie shortstop Jose Reyes to second base. It looked like the Mets had made the right decision when Matsui hit the first pitch he saw in the Major Leagues for a home run on Opening Day in 2004 against the Atlanta Braves. Unfortunately that would be the highlight of the season for Matsui. In 2005 the Mets moved Matsui to second base where he appeared more comfortable but he still struggled at the plate. Matsui’s continued struggles at the plate made him a constant target of boos from the fans. The Mets finally relented and traded him to the Colorado Rockies in the middle of the 2006 season. In two-plus seasons with the Mets, Matsui hit just .256 with 11 home runs and 75 RBI’s. Once out of the spotlight of New York City Matsui went on to have success with the Rockies and the Houston Astros though he still has not evolved to the All Star player he was in Japan. While with the Mets he became the first Major League Player to hit a home run in his first plate appearance of his first three seasons.
Kaz Ishii (2005) The Mets acquired Ishii from the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for Jason Phillips prior to the 2005 season. Ishii, who won 36 games in three seasons as a Dodger, struggled as a Met, posting only a 3-9 record with a 5.14 ERA. The Mets released him following the season and he returned to his native Japan to pitch for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Ishii currently pitches for the Seibu Lions.
Dae-Sung Koo (2005) A native of South Korea, Koo pitched professionally in his native South Korea and also in Japan. He helped lead South Korea to a Bronze Medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics. The Mets signed him as a free agent prior to the 2005 season. Working out of the bullpen, Koo pitched effectively as a left-handed specialist. He posted a respectable 3.91 ERA in 33 games. However Koo will be forever remembered for his hitting and base running against Randy Johnson of the Yankees. In just his second Major League at-bat Koo doubled off the center field wall. But the fun was just getting started. Next batter Jose Reyes laid down a sacrifice bunt advancing Koo to third. But seeing the defense begin to fall asleep, Koo decided to keep going and narrowly missed the tag by Jorge Posada to score. You can see Koo’s base running adventure here. Following the season the Mets sold his contract to the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization.
Shingo Takatsu (2005) After being released by the Chicago White Sox in August 2005, Takatsu signed as a free agent with the Mets. He made his New York debut on September 3, 2005 and finished the season pitching in nine games out of the bullpen. Takatsu finished the season with a 1-0 record with a 2.35 ERA. He was not re-signed in 2006.
Chan Ho Park (2007). A former All Star, Park signed a free agent contract with the Mets in 2007. He started the season pitching for their Triple-A affiliate, the New Orleans Zephyrs. Park made his Mets debut on April 30 against the Florida Marlins. After retiring the first eight batters he faced, Park imploded and gave up six hits and seven runs over the next two innings. He pitched worse than his final line of the night, four innings, six hits, seven runs and two walks. It would be the only game Park would pitch for the Mets. He was released two months later.
Ken Takahashi (2009). After playing 14 seasons for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan Takahashi signed as a minor league free agent with the Mets prior to the 2009 season. When Takahashi made his Mets debut on May 2, 2009 he became just the third player since World War II to make his Major League debut at the age of 40. Takahashi pitched out of the bullpen for the Mets, recording a 0-1 record with a 2.96 ERA in 27 games. The Mets released him following the 2009 season.
A special mention should also be given to Danny Graves who was born in Vietnam to an American GI and a Vietnamese mother but grew up in the United States. A two-time All Star with the Cincinnati Reds, Graves was signed by the Mets in June of 2005. It was quickly apparent that his best days had passed him by as he struggled in 20 relief appearances with the team, posting a 5.75 ERA.
Graves left the Mets and signed with the Cleveland Indians as free agent following the 2005 season. Graves has the distinction of being the first, and to this day the only, Vietnamese-born player to play in the Major Leagues.