While it’s still the post-season, and the off-season wheeling and dealing has not yet begun in earnest, it seems like a good time for a post on which Japanese stars we are most likely to see crossing the pond to the U.S. for the 2013 season.
Also, given the bargains that Wei-Yin Chen, Norichika Aoki and Hisashi Iwakuma turned out to be for the MLB teams that signed them last off-season, I expect that the market for Japanese players will be up this off-season compared to last.
There are only two ways a Japanese NPB veteran can come to MLB: (1) he becomes an international free agent after nine years of service in NPB; or (2) his NPB team “posts” him for MLB teams to bid on the exclusive right to negotiate a possible contract with the player. Under the posting system, the NPB team only receives the winning posting bid if the player successfully signs a contract with the high-bidding MLB team.
Further complicating the matter is that fact that NPB players now become “domestic” free agents after eight NPB seasons, which means that after eight seasons an NPB player can sign a contract with another NPB team (although the signing team must provide the former team with compensation), but cannot sign with an MLB team.
More on the financial structure of NPB is useful here. NPB is sharply divided into two tiers of teams: a smaller group of teams that are highly profitable (or at least breaking even) and a larger group of teams that survive only because they are heavily subsidized for advertizing and publicity purposes by their corporate owners/sponsors.
Over the last three seasons (2010 through 2012), here are the average annual attendance figures (in millions) for NPB’s twelve teams:
Hanshin Tigers 2.88; Yomiuri Giants 2.86; Fukuoka Softbank Hawks 2.30; Chunichi Dragons 2.14; Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters 1.93
Hiroshima Toyo Carp 1.59; Saitama Seibu Lions 1.57; Orix Buffaloes 1.39; Chiba Lotte Marines 1.37; Tokyo Yakult Swallows 1.33; Yokahama DeNA Bay Stars 1.16; Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles 1.16.
[Raw attendance figures come from yakyubaka.com -- e.g. here. Note also that while NPB teams play 72 home dates per season, while MLB teams play 81, in 2012 five of the twelve NPB teams drew fewer than 20,000 fans per game, while only three of MLB's 30 teams drew fewer than 20,000 per game. Also, NPB overall attendance is down slightly each of the last two seasons, while MLB's attendance is up.]
The effect of this division in team revenues has been obvious with respect to the posting system. The Yomiuri Giants and the Softbank Hawks are the only two clubs never to have posted a player, and the four highest drawing teams have posted only two of the twenty players posted during the history of the posting system.
Nevertheless, once they become true (9-year) free agents, players for the wealthiest teams have frequently elected to sign with MLB teams, presumably to play against a higher level of competition, to receive at least the possibility of higher MLB salaries, and to escape the more rigorous training regimens and greater interference in their personal lives which NPB teams generally impose.
With all that said and in mind, here is my list of current NPB players most likely to make the jump to MLB for the 2013 season.
SS Hiroyuki Nakajima. The Seibu Lions’ shortstop should have become a major leaguer last off-season, but failed to reach agreement on a contract with the New York Yankees, who won with a $2.5 million bid when the Lions posted him. The Yankees didn’t need Nakajimi, since they already have highly paid superstars at SS, 2nd and 3rd, and placed the high bid most likely only because other teams were afraid to bid more after the Twins’ bid & signing of Tsuyoshi Nishioka before the 2011 season turned out to be a disaster.
Because so few players come over from Japan each off-season, particularly position players, teams give too much weight to the previous year’s signings. However, as mentioned above, Norichika Aoki’s bargain signing by the Brewers last off-season should help Nakajima substantially this off-season.
Nakajima is now a true free agent, which means no posting fee, and he had another fine season in Japan. He finished second in NPB’s Pacific League in each of batting average (.313), on-base percentage (.382) and OPS (.833)(it was a another terrible year for offensive in NPB — no wonder attendance is down there). He will be 30 years old next season, so he’s still at or reasonably close to his prime.
After failing to sign with the Yankees last off-season, Nakajima re-signed with Seibu for a reported $3.64 million. Two of the sticking points with the Yankees were Nakajima’s insistence on a three-year deal at the end of which he would become an MLB free agent. Presumably then, a three-year deal worth at least $10 million at the end of which Nakajima becomes a free agent again would be required for Nakajima to sign with a major league team.
RHP Kyuji Fujikawa. The long-time Hanshin Tigers’ closer is also a true free agent this off-season and is reportedly interested in exploring opportunities to pitch in the U.S.
Fujikawa turns 33 next July 21st, and he appears to have had some minor injury problems in 2012, which limited him to his lowest games pitched, innings pitched, saves, K/IP and K/BB rates since 2004. Even so, he still managed to save 24 games, post a 1.32 ERA, strike out 11.0 batters per nine innings and record 3.9 strikeouts for each walk allowed. With a career 1.77 ERA, 11.9 Ks per nine IP and 4.4 strikeouts for each walk, it’s hard to imagine that he would not be a great addition to a major league team’s bullpen.
The Hanshin Tigers have said they hope to resign Fujikawa, and they have the money to match a major league team’s offer, if they choose to do so. As such, whether or not Fujikawa signs with a major league team, may have more to do with how much Fujikawa wants to test his skills in MLB than the financial aspect.
SS Takashi Toritani. Another true free agent, Toritani is a fine player, but thirteen months older than Hiroyuki Nakajima. Toritani hit only .262 this past season, but his .373 on-base percentage was fifth best in NPB’s Central League, and he has a career average of .282 and an OBP just over .360.
There is concern in some quarters about the drop in Toritani’s power numbers the last two years since new pitcher-friendly baseballs were introduced in NPB. The drop off in power relative to Nakajima probably has more to do with the fact that Toritani is a year older.
What I have been able to find on the internet indicates that there is some doubt among major league scouts whether either Nakajima or Toritani provides major league defense at shortstop. Instead, their value would appear to be as relatively high on-base percentage utility infielders who could play at 2nd, 3rd and SS as needed.
The chances are reasonably good that Toritani will get a better offer from his current team, the Hanshin Tigers, than what a major league team will offer him.
2B Kensuke Tanaka. Tanaka is another true free agent, and he reportedly is interested in coming to the U.S. However, his career .342 OBP is approximately twenty points lower than Toritani and almost 30 lower than Nakajima. Also, his 2012 season ended with an elbow injury caused by a collision with Nakajima at second base.
RHPs Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda. Tanaka and Maeda remain NPB’s top two MLB pitching prospects since the Rangers signed Yu Darvish. Tanaka is ultimately the better prospect, but for reasons I’ll explain below the odds are probably better for Maeda to be the one posted this off-season, if either are.
Masahiro Tanaka missed four or five starts this year due to an early season hip injury, which limited him to 173 innings pitched. Even so, he finished second in the Pacific League in ERA (1.87) and first in strike outs (169). Nevertheless, there is a good chance the Rakuten Golden Eagles will hold onto him at least one more year to see if he can put up another season like 2011, when his numbers very nearly matched Yu Darvish’s as the best in NPB.
Certainly, Tanaka’s value would then be at its highest, particularly considering that he will still be only 25 in 2014.
Kenta Maeda’s 2012 season was terrific. He led the Central League in ERA (1.53) by 45 points and was the only pitcher in the Central League to pitch more than 200 innings, the third year in a row he has done so. He was second in the league with 14 wins, and his 171 strike outs was good for third best, only one strike out behind co-leaders Toshiya Sugiuchi of the Yomiuri Giants and Atsushi Nomi of the Hanshin Tigers.
Maeda has completed five NPB seasons and will be 25 next year. The reason the Hiroshima Carp may decide to post him this year is that his posting value may now be at its all-time high. The main knock on Maeda is his body type. He’s listed as 6’0″ and 161 lbs (about Tim Lincecum’s size), compared to 6’2″ and 205 lbs for Masahiro Tanaka.
After three consecutive seasons of 200+ innings pitched, I don’t think any further such performances will do anything to convince major league executives that Maeda is any less of a risk going forward. In other words, his posting value is probably greatest now while Maeda is still young and not showing any effects from the heavy work load.