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Bobby Valentine scouts Las Vegas for Japanese club

December 9, 2008 |  3:39 pm

Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, right, taps the head of catcher Tomoya Satozaki.

LAS VEGAS -- Former big-league manager Bobby Valentine is trolling the baseball winter meetings, talking to agents in the hopes of signing at least a half-dozen players.

But these are players you won't be seeing in the major leagues any time soon.

For the past five years Valentine, who played for both the Dodgers and Angels, has been managing the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League. And since Japanese rules allow teams to carry four imported players each season, Valentine hopes to invite six men to spring training to compete for those jobs.

Last season Valentine's imports included Hawaiian-born outfielder Benny Agbayani and Dominicans  Jose Ortiz and Julio Zuleta.

And it would be all the better if Valentine managed to steal his imports off big-league rosters, since he contends  pitchers Masahide Kobayashi (Cleveland) and Yasuhiko Yabuta (Kansas City) were swiped from his bullpen before last season.

Valentine, who first managed in Japan in 1995, says the relationship between U.S. and Japanese baseball has changed dramatically since then.

"[Players] know that they can come back," Valentine said. "At one time it was a one-way street."

A decade ago, aging U.S. players could put a lucrative exclamation point on their careers by going to Japan, where their salaries were often higher. Hideo Nomo, Valentine says, took a cut in pay when he joined the Dodgers in 1995.

But that's no longer the case, which is why so many Japanese stars have been lured to the U.S. big leagues -- and why so many U.S. players now see proving themselves in Japan as a stepping stone back to the majors.

"It's become more of a two-way street," Valentine said. "There's a lot more traffic coming this way."

Chicago Cubs star Alfonso Soriano may have started the trend for non-Japanese players. Recruited out of the Dominican Republic by the Hiroshima Carp, Soriano played briefly in Japan -- earning $40,000 -- before signing a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees in 1998. So now, Valentine said, U.S. teams scouting Japanese games are just as likely to keep their eyes on the Western players as they do on the Japanese.

"I think many general managers see it as a way of acquiring a finished product," Valentine said. "They don't have to spend all that money on R & D."

The major leagues once had a similar relationship with Mexico, whose summer league is now an officially recognized minor league. And given the current economic crisis, which is now starting to hit Japan hard as well, Valentine said he can see a day when the Japanese and U.S. major leagues become more integrated -- but as equals.

"Some day it will be a division of the major leagues, with offices in Japan," Valentine said. "They'll find a way to work together."

-- Kevin Baxter

Photo: Chiba Lotte Marines Manager Bobby Valentine, right, taps the head of catcher Tomoya Satozaki following a victory over the Nippon Ham Fighters at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, Japan, in 2007. Credit: Kyodo News / Associated Press