M’s Sign Int’l SS Pedro Okuda
You may have heard recently that the Mariners have traded for some guy, former Cy Young winner or something. I donâ€™t know, Dave seems to be pretty stoked though, and I take this as a good sign. Speaking from the perspective of the resident prospect guy, we dealt spare parts from our depth and lost little thatâ€™s likely to haunt us, and from that standpoint alone the deal is awesome. I really am excited too, but I leave the analysis to the professionals.
Another smaller deal that went down today was that the Mariners signed nineteen-year-old shortstop Pedro Okuda to a minor league contract. Heâ€™ll report to the Marinersâ€™ Venezuelan academy come spring.
Pedro Okuda… itâ€™s quite a name isnâ€™t it? Thereâ€™s a story behind that though. There were waves of Japanese immigration to South America in the early part of the century, and one of the things they brought with them was baseball. For the longest time, it was a niche game, as the locals were more interested in futbol, but it gradually gained in popularity to the point where the nationâ€™s youth got a hold of it. In Brazil, the academies that pop up will require that players learn both Japanese and Portuguese in order to adequately communicate on the field. I imagine itâ€™s the same with Spanish elsewhere. Itâ€™s still a market thatâ€™s opening up, but as you get out of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia, and into places like Argentina and Brazil, the players that get signed usually have some Japanese ties.
The book on Okuda is this: heâ€™s half-Brazilian, half- third-generation Japanese, is a left-handed hitter who is about 5â€™10 and 160 lbs currently, and was signed as a shortstop, though he pitched a bit in his earlier days. Okuda has been playing the game since he was eight and shipped over to Japan for high school, recognizing the need to face stronger competition.
The local scouts didnâ€™t like him much when he arrived, just an interesting physical specimen lacking in hard skills, but they warmed up to him by his third year. A large part of this was due to his walk-off home run for Koshien in a â€™07 tournament, which came to be known as the â€œSayonara Home Runâ€, a low-inside ball that was hit with just barely enough leverage to get out of dead center. The catcher left the field bawling. Itâ€™s the kind of thing that gets a kid noticed. Despite this, the recent NPB draft passed over him completely, for reasons not entirely clear. Granted, he was in the second tier of prospects, but scouts liked him plenty.
After watching the famous home run, Graham suggested it looked like Ichiroâ€™s HR swing. I didnâ€™t want to believe it at first, as the comparison is almost too facile to make, what with two wiry strong left-handed batters of Japanese heritage. Spending some hours with the video feeds though, I can definitely see it. Okuda looks like heâ€™s spent a fair amount of time studying Ichiro and mimicking his mannerisms. He stands taller in the box and moves around a bit more, but otherwise the influence is strong, particularly in the way he handles pitches out of the zone , the load in his swing, how he seems to shift his focus up a notch as the ball is coming to the plate, and the follow-through as heâ€™s heading for first. He also shares Ichiroâ€™s wheels, maybe not to the same degree, but he sprinted out a bunt single or two that I saw that most players could not, and heâ€™s also known for being quite aggressive on the basepaths. The illusion isnâ€™t perfect, as there is something unmistakably methodical about the way Ichiro goes about his business, where Okuda plays with a kind of exuberance and clearly isnâ€™t above showboating a bit, but the approach is similar enough and he has the same kind of pop that can surprise you.
Okuda is thought of as being a bat-first infielder, so Iâ€™ve only seen a little bit of video of him on the field. However, the bat-first part may be a bit of a mislabeling, as he plays short like a natural, ranging easily, fielding a few tricky plays, covering well for the third basemen, and occasionally showing off a strong arm that hearkens back to his pitching days. More accurately, taking all the other factors into account, he might be called a five-tool shortstop that is seems likely to stay on position. His ability to hit for power may end up as nothing extraordinary, but heâ€™s physically bigger than Ichi at the very least and looks like he may offer some power for the average he wonâ€™t be able to provide.
On ability alone, I could put him in Everett right now just to see what happens, but the Mâ€™s have made a point of saying that heâ€™ll be in Venezuela in their press releases. This is probably something Okuda included in his contract, as heâ€™s spent the past few years playing in Japan and only came home to Brazil briefly last summer while his mother endured surgery on a brain tumor that lasted ten hours. My guess is that he wanted to play closer to home to keep an eye on her, so to speak, for the first year, and then in 2011 we might see him stateside, perhaps even breaking with one of the full-season teams depending on how he does in Venezuela.
Okuda is not an elite prospect, but heâ€™s an exciting one, physically talented and getting better. The Mâ€™s made note of him to the press today for a reason, and I think weâ€™ll see what they mean in the near future.