Behind the Scenes of Rakuten’s “Blitz Trade” of Sawamura Award Pitcher Wakui | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Behind the Scenes of Rakuten’s “Blitz Trade” of Sawamura Award Pitcher Wakui

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From left to right, Hideaki Wakui, Masahiro Tanaka, and Hiroki Matsui talk amicably at the 2021 spring training camp. Wakui’s baseball career took a turn for the better when Tanaka stayed on (Photo: Kyodo News)

The trade of Hideaki Wakui of Rakuten and Hisaki Abe of Chunichi was announced by the two teams on March 15.

The trade was made possible by Chunichi’s desire to add depth to its starting pitching staff and Rakuten’s desire to strengthen its right-handed hitting staff. However, there is a “gap” between a pitcher with a salary of 110 million yen who won 154 professional wins and was the first pitcher to win the most victories with all three teams he pitched for, and a hitter with a salary of 36 million yen who has never won a title. As much as Chunichi wanted Wakui because of his competitive ability, Rakuten had no choice but to release him.

A sports newspaper reporter revealed the following.

According to Rakuten manager Kazuhisa Ishii, who was interviewed after the trade decision was made, Chunichi approached the Rakuten side and first told Wakui about it. Ishii and Wakui fought together at Seibu when they were both active players, and it is said that when Wakui was traded from Lotte to Rakuten in a cash trade, the presence of Ishii, who was the GM of Rakuten, was a major factor.

Because of this relationship, Ishii respected Wakui’s feelings and said, “The trade was concluded because Wakui agreed to it. Abe, whom Rakuten acquired from Chunichi, is a utility player who can play both infield and outfield, and is a right-handed hitter, one of Rakuten’s key reinforcements. He is mainly used as the No. 3 and No. 5 hitters behind Viciedo, the team’s main gunner, and this season he hit nine home runs, the second most on the team. However, Chunichi, who wanted to rejuvenate their lineup, wanted to bring up Koya Ishikawa, who will be in his fourth year next season, and to encourage Shuhei Takahashi to get back on track, so Abe, who will turn 33 next year, was not necessarily a player they wanted to use aggressively. As a result, both parties’ intentions coincided.”

Wakui, who has completed his 18th year as a professional, started the season with the second team. He was promoted to the first team in a hurry after Kotaota Norimoto, the ace right fielder, contracted a new type of coronavirus, but in May he broke the middle finger of his right hand and was out for an extended period of time. He made only 10 appearances in the season, his worst number, and won only four games. If we only look at his performance this season, Abe is the better pitcher, but if we compare their past results, we must say that there is a “gap” between Wakui, whose salary exceeds 100 million yen per year, and Abe, whose salary is in the 30 million yen range. However, an official of a Pacific League baseball team said, “Rakuten’s off-season will be a good one for Tanaka.

A source from the Pacific League baseball team said, “This off-season, Rakuten was paying attention to Masahiro Tanaka’s departure. Tanaka was in the final year of a two-year contract after returning from the United States, and we wondered whether he would stay or be transferred. There had been talk that Tanaka might try out for America again, but we had heard rumors for some time that Wakui might not be able to stay with Rakuten if he stayed.

If Wakui could regain his form, he would be capable of competing with Tanaka, Takayuki Kishi, Norimoto, and others for a spot in the rotation, but Rakuten had other circumstances in mind. A veteran baseball reporter revealed, “There is the money situation.

There is the money situation. Rakuten has been in existence for less than 20 years, but this year it has the third-highest total annual salary for players after Softbank and the Giants. In the last two years when Tanaka came back to Japan, the team was expected to win the Japanese championship, but in the first year they finished third, and this year, their second year, they finished fourth.

During these two years, not only Rakuten but all the teams did not receive revenue from admission fees due to the COVID-19 crisis, and Rakuten’s failure to produce the expected results did not increase the revenue from merchandise either.

If they had been able to participate in the Japan Series, they would have been allocated a portion of the admission fees, broadcasting rights fees, etc., minus expenses, as “distribution money” until Game 4, so they could have expected to receive nearly 100 million yen in “extra income” just by participating, but they did not receive that either. Because of these circumstances, Rakuten is trying to keep down the total annual salaries of its players this off-season. I hear that the amount they have to float is 600 million yen.

The other day, there were reports that Tanaka, who will remain with Rakuten, will take a salary cut of more than 300 million yen. Furthermore, Ginji, who will be entering his 18th year next year, has also signed a contract for 70 million yen, drinking 40 million yen less than his 110 million yen annual salary. Even if Abe, who joined the team from Chunichi, were to be paid 50 million yen a year, the difference with Wakui would be 60 million yen, so that these three players alone would have saved 400 million yen.

Rakuten’s Wakui and Chunichi’s Abe, whose trade was announced

However, the release of Wakui is not only due to financial reasons, but also because of the team’s vision for the future. An alumnus of the team revealed the following.

A team alumnus revealed, “Other than Wakui, Rakuten has a full complement of right-handed pitchers this year, including Tanaka, Kishi, and Norimoto, but all of them are in their 30s. It is time to bring up the next generation of right-handed pitchers. As for left-handers, Takahisa Hayakawa and Sei Fujii have emerged, but right-handers Ryota Takinaka, Naoma Tohei, and Koichi Takada are in their 20s, but they have not yet reached the level where we can expect them to be at Tanaka’s level.

Considering only the one win in front of him, Wakui is certainly a player I would like to have, but with such a proven player on the team, the manager on the field has no choice but to use him. If they do so, they will deprive young players of the opportunity to pitch in the first team. I think the trade talk from Chunichi was a “godsend” for both Wakui, who still wants to pitch, and the team, which wanted to change Wakui’s environment in order to expand opportunities for young players.

Wakui also had a “conduct problem” that had been whispered about within the baseball world. An alumnus of the baseball team mentioned above revealed, “Wakui practices hard and runs a lot.

He practices a lot and runs a lot, but he also drinks a lot. He is the kind of guy who drinks and socializes with backstage workers, and he even donated a refrigerator for the staff, so there are many backstage workers who love him.

During the two years of the COVID-19 crisis, players were not allowed to go out at campsites or on tours and were forced to relax in their rooms, but Wakui, who loved to drink, sometimes invited young players to his “room drinking. However, many of today’s young players cannot drink much, so he was puzzled. The trade can be seen as the team’s way of taking action before it would have a “negative” impact on the young players they wanted to promote.

Wakui, who has been able to get out of a number of tight spots with a poker face, will be able to silence those around him with results, as he has done in the past.

Wakui and then-GM Kazuhisa Ishii smile at his press conference in 2019 (Photo: Kyodo News)
Total player salaries of the 12 professional baseball teams in 2022. Rakuten is in the top three (Photo: Kyodo News)

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