With the two players most likely to join MLB in 2015 now out of the 2014 NPB post-season, it’s a good time for a post on the NPB players most likely to join MLB in 2015.
Not surprisingly, the two top prospects are both starting pitchers, Chihiro Kaneko and Kenta Maeda. Both are small right-handers, which works heavily against them in the eyes of MLB scouts, but both have pitched too well in NPB for too long for at least one MLB team not to take a chance on each of them.
I’ve seen several posts on mlbtraderumors.com about MLB scouts scouting Kenta Maeda. This makes a certain amount of sense, since Maeda is four years younger than Kaneko — Maeda will be 27 in 2015, while Kaneko will be 31. However, as of the end of the 2014 season, I think Kaneko is the better pitcher.
In 2013, Chihiro Kaneko was pretty clearly the second best pitcher in NPB after Masahiro Tanaka, and with Tanaka pitching for the Yankees in 2014, Kaneko was pretty clearly the best pitcher in NPB this past season. Kaneko is no Masahiro Tanaka, but he doesn’t have to be to be an effective and valuable No. 3 starter in MLB.
In 2014, Kaneko led NPB in ERA (1.98) and wins (16) and finished 3rd in strikeouts (199 Ks in 191 IP). Some minor injuries caused him to miss a couple of starts, which was probably a good think since he led NPB in innings pitched in 2013 with 223.1, which is a lot when you consider that NPB starters rarely make 30 starts in a season due to a 144 game schedule.
Kaneko plays for a small-market team (the Orix Buffaloes) and has made noises suggesting that he wants to be posted this off-season. He has more of an “American” attitude in that he thinks NPB pitchers throw too much between starts. This is hardly a bad thing, as pitchers who chafed under the rigid NPB system, like Hideo Nomo and Hisashi Iwakuma, have gone on to considerable success in MLB.
Again, the major knocks on Kaneko are his size (NPB’s website lists him at 5’11” and 170 lbs) and his age. His strengths appear to be command and a splitter/forkball pitch that is probably comparable to Koji Uehara‘s. Maybe this means Kaneko ends up a reliever in MLB, but MLB could certainly use another Koji Uehara, and Kaneko’s NPB career was slightly more impressive than Uehara’s.
Kenta Maeda’s 2014 was good and well within the range he’d set the previous four seasons, but he wasn’t dominating in the way that Kaneko was, and dominating is something you look for in NPB-to-MLB transplants. I was concerned about Maeda’s strikeout rate for much of the 2014 season, and while he was hot and cold in the final six weeks of the 2014 NPB season, his final K/IP rate of 7.7 matches his average over the previous four seasons.
Maeda has been coy so far about whether he wants to be posted this off-season, and I have to think that his team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, would like to hold on to him for 2015, the last season before they have to post him or risk losing him to unfettered free agency after the 2016 season. The Carp made the play-offs this year, before losing in the first round of the Challenge Series, and they also set an all-time attendance record with approximately 1.90 million fans, so they have a strong incentive to try to hold on to Maeda for one more season.
Ultimately, Maeda finished 5th in NPB in ERA (2.60) and sixth in strikeouts (161 in 187 IP). He’s listed as 5’11.5″ and 178 lbs, so he isn’t significantly bigger than Kaneko. As I suggest above, I’d rather have Kaneko at this moment, but at his age Maeda is also worth the risk.
After Kaneko and Maeda the pickings get pretty slim. Players who aren’t elite talents are worth as much to their Japanese teams, where their performance is more valuable relative to what they could reasonably be expected to do in the States, as they are to MLB teams. Also, NPB teams have little incentive to post their players until they have eight years of NPB service, unless they are so obviously great (like Tanaka and Yu Darvish) that the NPB team looks bad if it doesn’t let them move on to greener MLB pastures sooner.
Outfielder Yoshio Itoi and Takashi Toritani were terrific in 2014, as they have been for many years in NPB. However, Toritani turns 34 in late June 2015, and Itoi turns 34 less than three weeks later. They’re just not good bets for major league teams at their age. Itoi has recently made noises about wanting to be posted, but his team the Orix Buffaloes has made it clear they are not eager to post their best position player after getting knocked out in the first round of the post-season this year.
Among relief pitchers, Ryota Igarashi had a fine season at age 35 (1.52 ERA and 71 Ks in 59.1 IP), but he’s old, and he washed out in his first attempt at MLB a few years ago. Hard to see an MLB team laying out the money to bring him over for another shot in the U.S.
Two former major leaguers who could potentially return to MLB are Dennis Sarfate and Wily Mo Pena. Sarfate had a terrific 2014 at age 33, posting a 1.06 ERA, 98 Ks in 68.1 IP and recording 37 saves for the Softbank Hawks.
Actually, Sarfate won’t be returning to the U.S. in 2015, as he signed a two-year deal with the Hawks last off-season. Hanshin Tigers’ closer Seung-hwan Oh is also an MLB-caliber pitcher who won’t be coming to the U.S. in 2015, because he also signed a two-year deal this past off-season. Oh, in particular, is an early favorite to come to MLB in 2016 when he’ll be 33 years old.
Wily Mo Pena is on record stating that he wants to return to MLB in 2015, but it’s unknown whether or not this is simply a negotiating ploy directed at his current team, the Orix Buffaloes, and other NPB teams in general. Right now his 2014 season stats (.258 batting average, 32 HRs and .830 OPS) and his age (32 next season) suggest to me that he has a lot more value to an NPB team than an MLB team.
However, I felt the same way about Casey McGehee last off-season and he had a surprisingly successful 2014 campaign for the Miami Marlin. However, a close reading of McGehee’s 2013 NPB stats suggest he was a better bet to return to MLB in 2014 than Pena will be in 2015. I’m also expecting McGehee to lose his starting MLB job by the end of the 2015 season, since he’ll be 32 next year.
I haven’t seen a list yet of the NPB players who will be limited (eight seasons) or unlimited (nine seasons) free agents this off-season. Yakubaka.com usually publishes a list within about a week of the end of the Japan Series. When I get a hold of the free agent list, I’ll write a follow-up of any players who might be reasonably good bets for MLB.