Just before he heads off to negotiate with MLB, Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto added another honor to his long list of NPB accomplishments.
Yamamoto was named Pacific League MVP and Hanshin Tigers rookie starter Shoki Murakami, who helped lead his team past Orix in the Japan Series, collected the Central League MVP accolade. The players received their awards on Tuesday, November 28.
Yamamoto became the first NPB player since Ichiro Suzuki from 1994-96 to win three straight MVP awards. Suzuki also played for Orix when they were known as the BlueWave before heading off to an illustrious career in MLB.
The 25-year-old Yamamoto led the Pacific League in wins (16) strikeouts (169) and ERA (1.21) in 2023, the third straight year he has topped those categories.
He also won his third straight Sawamura Award as Japan's top pitcher.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto Reflects on His Baseball Journey
"I can't say I left everything out there on the field, but I've had a terrific journey in pro baseball," Yamamoto said, according to Kyodo News. "I'm very happy because it is important for me to continue to contribute."
Yamamoto is currently seeking a contract with an MLB team via the posting system.
The New York Yankees are seen by many to be the odds-on favorite to sign Yamamoto. Other teams said to be in the mix are the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Murakami Surprised to Receive a Pair of Accolades
Murakami, who was the CL's Rookie of the Year, went 10-6 and led the league with a 1.75 ERA.
"I didn't imagine I'd win both," Murakami told Kyodo before adding, "I didn't think I'd win the MVP out of so many good players."
Looking ahead to next season, Murakami said, "I want to strive to achieve even better results."
Ohtani a Jay?
One darkhorse that has emerged in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes is north of the border.
Reports came out of the United States this week that the Toronto Blue Jays are a serious contender for the two-way star and free agent.
While the Dodgers remain the frontrunner, the Blue Jays do offer some attractive elements for Ohtani, who began his career in NPB in 2013.
First and foremost, the Blue Jays are a contender. They won around 90 games in each of the past three seasons.
The Blue Jays made the playoffs this past season, although they were swept in the Wild Card round by the Minnesota Twins.
The thought of Bichette, Guerrero, Springer and Ohtani together in the lineup would put fear into any opposition pitcher.
In addition, the Blue Jays need a designated hitter as Brandon Belt is now a free agent.
Ohtani Has Had Success in Toronto
Ohtani also has good numbers at Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays' home ballpark, where he has batted .326 with a 1.139 OPS in 13 games there. In 58 plate appearances, he has nine hits, all extra-base hits, including three home runs and 10 RBIs.
The Jays are also renovating Rogers Centre this offseason with alterations that will make it even more hitter-friendly than it already is.
Finally, he would have Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi as a teammate and that is always something that would make a transition a little bit easier, although that would also be the case in Chicago and Boston where Seiya Suzuki and Masataka Yoshida play.
While clearly not the frontrunner, the Jays do have some attractive elements that Ohtani might be interested in.
Owned by Canadian communications and media company Rogers Communications, the Blue Jays also have deep pockets.
Rami-Chan Steps Up to the Plate
Alex Ramirez was a star when he played in Japan for the Yakult Swallows (2001-07), Yomiuri Giants (2008-11) and Yokohama BayStars (2012-13).
Now the former major leaguer is taking that winning attitude to a new level off the field.
Ramirez's son Kenji has Down syndrome and the former player and manager has set up an NPO with his wife Miho called Vamos Together.
The aim of Vamos Together is to break the antiquated notion that kids with Down syndrome and other special needs should only play with other kids that have the similar conditions.
Ramirez believes that everyone, regardless of being disabled or not, can be accepted for who they are.
He explained the goal of Vamos Together in an interview with Tokyo Weekender.
"My son Kenji has Down syndrome and I want to be able to help him become independent and to live a life as normal as anyone else," Ramirez said. "So, a couple of years ago, I joined an organization where only kids with special needs were able to participate."
4th consecutive years for Vamos together and Yokohama bay Sheraton Hotel collaborate on this wonderful event Hope for SMILE! Lighting up the Christmas tree lights early Christmas! Special thanks to al of the kids who participate it today it was wonderful event @vamostogether21 pic.twitter.com/wLj52OBfSL— Alex “Ramichan”Ramirez (@Ramichan3) November 11, 2023
Inspiration for Vamos Together
Ramirez said that's when he got the inspiration for his organization.
"I came up with the idea of creating another organization where everybody gets to participate, and nobody gets left out," Ramirez said.
The organization puts together a variety of sporting activities and outings for both kids with and without disabilities.
"I've seen kids with Down syndrome and other special needs lead by themselves," Ramirez told the magazine.
He added, "I really admire that. And that's the goal of Vamos Together. To be able to provide those opportunities. And for these children to become truly independent."
Among his career highlights in Japan, Ramirez was a two-time Central League MVP, an eight-time NPB All-Star and a two-time Japan Series champion.
During his final season with the Swallows in 2007, Ramirez set the CL record for the most base hits in a season with 204.
I feel incredibly honored to serve as the manager for the Hinokuni Salamanders. With high expectations for this season, I anticipate significant achievements. #火の国サラマンダーズ #野球 #熊本 #クマモン #日本 #JRFPA #独立リーグ #くまスポ@55_kumamon 仲良くしてくださいね！ pic.twitter.com/qbkBjL6HcZ— Bobby Rose (@Bobby_r_rose23) November 24, 2023
Blast From the Past
Speaking of popular former Yokohama players, Bobby Rose is coming back to Japan in 2024.
Rose has been appointed as manager of the Hinokuni Salamanders, a team in the independent Kyushu Asia League, based in Kumamoto.
"I am so excited to be an ambassador for the city of Kumamoto for the team," Rose said in a statement. "I am looking forward to getting to know every player."
Added Rose, "I am so thankful for this opportunity to represent the city of Kumamoto."
The 56-year-old Rose played for the BayStars from 1993 to 2000.
Rose was a member of the 1998 Yokohama team that won the Japan Series. He was also a CL batting champion in 1999 and a four-time All-Star.
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.