Japanese NPB Players Most Likely to Join MLB in 2014

yakyubaka.com yesterday published its list of Nippon Professional Baseball’s (“NPB”) domestic and international free agents for this off-season.  Twenty of the free agents are “domestic” while sixty are “international.”

You can read the rules regarding NPB free agency here, but the upshot is that only “international” free agents (nine years of NPB service) are true free agents.  “Domestic” free agents (eight years of service currently, but down to seven years for those drafted after 2007) can sign only with other NPB teams, and the process of changing teams is more like a forced trade with substantial compensation (money and a player) going to the domestic free agent’s old team.  In fact, most players eligible to become domestic free agents fail to exercise their option to do so.

Among this year’s free agent class, there aren’t too many players with the talent and the desire to play in the U.S.  For example, Tetsuya Utsumi and Shinnosuke Abe of the Yomiuri Giants top the list of international free agents in the link above.  They are both fine players, but it’s not particularly likely that either will leave the Giants.

Utsumi signed a four-year 1.6 billion yen ($16 million) deal with the Giants last off-season, so he isn’t going anywhere.  Abe was the best paid player in NPB last year at 570 million yen ($5.7 million) and is likely making even more in endorsements in Japan.  Equally important, Abe will be 35 next year, so while he’s still a major league talent, it’s unlikely he’d have a long career in the U.S.

The one player most likely to come to the U.S. in 2014 is ace Masahiro Tanaka. He went an unbelievable 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA during the regular season, the third year in a row in which he’s posted an ERA below 2.00.  In the second round of NPB’s play-offs, he threw a shutout in the opener and saved the final game of the series.

Given the success of Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda this year in MLB, plus the huge contracts given to Cuban prospect Jose Dariel Abreu ($68 million for six years) and to Tim Lincecum ($35 million for two years), I have to think that if Tanaka is posted this off-season, he’ll command of a posting fee of around $60 million and a contract at least equal to that of Abreu.

The only knock of Tanaka is that his stuff isn’t quite as good as Darvish’s.  However, Tanaka likely has better command of what is still excellent stuff.

All that said, it is not necessarily a sure thing that Tanaka will, in fact, be posted.  He signed a two-year deal for 400 million yen ($4 million) a season last off-season, which means that his current team the Rakuten Golden Eagles could hold on to him for one more year at what is now a bargain price, even by NPB standards, and then post him after the 2014 season.

It’s also worth noting that the Golden Eagles made the Japan Series for the first time in their nine year history thanks almost entirely due to Tanaka’s incredible pitching.  The Golden Eagles would be hard pressed to make the play-offs next year without Tanaka.

The things that most militate for Tanaka being posted is simply the amount of the posting fee, which is going to be as high as it ever will following Tanaka’s once-in-a-lifetime season and the fact that he will still be only 25 years old in 2014, and also the fact that the Golden Eagles drew very poorly at the gate this year (as they have in the past) in spite of running away with the Pacific League regular season title.  $60 million seems like too much money for a team as poor as the Golden Eagles to walk away from.

There are a number of other players who probably either won’t be posted or won’t otherwise be signed by an MLB team, but I’ll list the best of these players anyway.

Kenta Maeda.  Maeda remains the best starting pitcher in NPB after Tanaka.  Maeda went 15-7 this year and led the Central League with a 2.10 ERA, the third best ERA in NPB.  His 158 strikeouts (in 175.2 IP) was second best in the Central League and 4th best in NPB.

With a little less than six years of NPB service and no salary arbitration, it seems unlikely that his team, the Hiroshima Carp, will post him this off-season.  However, as a small right-hander his potential posting fee value is now as high as its ever going to be, because MLB teams have doubts about Maeda’s durability.  He’ll only be 26 next season, so he’s still young enough to draw serious MLB interest despite concerns about his size.

Also, Maeda and the Carp have already had fights about his salary, because the Carp have wantonly underpaid him.  The Carp offered Maeda 200 million yen ($2 million) last off-season, a raise of only 50 million yen ($500,000), despite a great season from Maeda in 2012 (he went 14-7 and led all of NPB with a 1.53 ERA).  Maeda held out, but he ultimately signed for 210 million yen, because Japanese players who haven’t reached free agency have no leverage.

Meanwhile, the Softbank Hawks, one of NPB’s rich teams, gave Tadashi Settsu a 100 million yen raise to 290 million yen ($2.9 million) for a 2012 season roughly comparable to Maeda’s 2012.  However, Maeda has accomplished more in his NPB career than Settsu despite being six years younger.

If Maeda feels he’s ready and eager to take his shot at MLB, he could demand that the Carp post him this off-season.  Given how stingy the Carp are, he’d almost certainly get a better contract pitching in the U.S.

Chihiro Kaneko.  A right-handed starter who turns 30 in November, Kaneko went 15-8 this year with a 2.01 ERA, second best in NPB, and an NPB-leading 200 strikeouts (in 223.1 IP).  Kaneko is definitely a major league talent, but it’s unlikely his team, the Orix Buffaloes, will post him.

Although the Buffaloes are a low-revenue team, its parent corporation Orix is celebrating its fiftieth corporate anniversary in 2014 and reportedly intends to hold on to the team’s best players in order to field a winning team next season.  Also, since Kaneko isn’t any bigger than Kenta Maeda and four years older, he isn’t likely to command an enormous posting fee.

Yoshio Itoi.  A 32 year old right fielder, Itoi has played well in the World Baseball Classic and was identified on a number of websites earlier this year as a player likely to join MLB in 2014.  I just don’t see it.

Itoi is simply too old (he’ll turn 33 next July 31st) and not enough of an offensive force for an MLB team to risk much of anything on.  He won’t hit for any power in the U.S., and while his career NPB .302 batting average and .389 OBP are good, they aren’t good enough to suggest he’d be a valuable offensive player in MLB.  By way of comparison, Norichika Aoki‘s career numbers in NPB were .329 and .402, and he’s five months younger than Itoi!

Good things have also been said about Itoi’s outfield defense.  However, he played right field his last two seasons in Japan, suggesting he’s no longer an adequate defensive center fielder.  Further, he didn’t reach double figures in assists in either of his two seasons as a right fielder, suggesting his arm isn’t above average.

Finally, Itoi currently plays for the Orix Buffaloes, who as stated above are reportedly intending to hold on to their best players for the 2014 season.

Shun Yamaguchi.  A 26 year old right-handed reliever, Yamaguchi stated last off-season that he would demand to be posted after the 2013 season.  Unfortunately, Yamaguchi’s ERA ballooned from 1.74 in 2012 to 5.40 in 2013.  He still struck out 48 batters in 46.2 innings pitched and struck out three batters for each walk he allowed.  However, he also allowed 46 hits and six home runs.  Most likely, he’ll return to the DeNA BayStars for another season to see if he can return to his previous form and bring his value back up.

Yoshihisa Hirano.  A right-hander who turns 30 next March, Hirano has been an extremely effective reliever with great strikeout numbers the last four seasons.  However, he’s another Orix Buffalo, so he probably won’t be posted this off-season.

Among this year’s domestic free agents, the most likely to be posted and possibly draw some interest from major league clubs are Kan Otake, Katsuhiro Nagakawa, Shohei Tateyama, Hideaki Wakui and Takumi Kuriyama.  Of these, Tateyama, if he’s fully recovered from the injury that cost him almost all of the 2013 season, and Kuriyama look to be the players who would draw the most interest from MLB teams.

Among the international (true) free agents, the most likely to come to the U.S. are Shinobu Fukuhara, Takashi Toritani, Hitoki Iwase and Hisashi Takeda.

Fukuhara is a soon-to-be 37 year old reliever who posted ERAs of 1.20 and 1.76 the last two seasons.  It’s most likely, however, that he’ll return to the Hanshin Tigers, the team he has played for the last 15 seasons and one that can afford to give him a competitive offer.

Toritani is a fine player coming off a year in which he had a .402 on-base percentage, excellent for a shortstop.  However, Toritani will be 33 next June, and MLB teams didn’t show him any interest when he was on the market last off-season.  The odds are strong he’ll return to the Hanshin Tigers in 2014.

One of the great closers in NPB history (382 career saves and 2.03 career ERA), Iwase turns 39 in November and will probably return to the Chunichi Dragons, the team he’s played for the last 15 seasons.  The only reason he might come to the U.S. is if he’s angry at taking a pay cut last season.

In 2012 Iwase was the highest paid player in NPB with a 450 million yen salary.  He had a “bad” year in 2012 — his 2.29 ERA was his highest since 2008 and his 33 saves were his fewest since 2004 — and the Dragons cut his 2013 salary by 80 million yen.  Iwase had a 1.86 ERA with 37 saves this past season, so it’s likely his salary will jump back over 400 million yen ($4 million) if he returns to the Dragons.

Takeda is another fine right-handed reliever who just turned 35 this month.  The last five seasons he has recorded a total of 153 saves and recorded ERAs of 1.20, 3.80, 1.03, 2.32 and 2.28 last season.  He doesn’t strike a lot of batters out, but he appears to be a groundball pitcher, with only 24 HRs allowed in 547 NPB innings pitched.  He’s also a strike-thrower.

Takeda made 240 million yen ($2.4 million) in 2013, so he might be willing to try his luck in the U.S., although it’s doubtful he’d make much more than that on his first MLB contract.

Among foreign players playing in NPB in 2013, the one most likely to return to the U.S. in 2014 is Randy Messenger.  In his four seasons in Japan, Randy has steadily improved.  He went 12-8 in 2013, his 2.89 ERA was fourth-best in the Central League and seventh-best in NPB, and his 183 Ks (in 196.1 IP) was highest in the Central League and tied with Masahiro Tanaka for second-most in NPB.

The Minnesota Twins are reportedly very interested in signing the 32 year old Messenger, but the Hanshin Tigers, his current team, intend to make him a competitive offer.

Wladimir Balentien would certainly draw intense interest from MLB teams if he were to become available.  However, the Yakult Swallows had the foresight to give him a three-year $7.5 million (total) deal last off-season, so Balentien is Swallows’ property unless they decide to sell his contract to a major league team.

Casey McGehee and South Korean Dae Ho Lee have also made noise about returning/coming to the U.S. to play in 2014.  However, I don’t think either will draw enough interest to justify leaving Japan.  While they hit well in NPB in 2013 (.891 OPS for McGehee; .877 OPS for Lee), neither hit well enough to think they can make the jump to MLB.  Add to that the fact that McGehee has already played his way out of MLB and that Lee is dead slow, and I can’t see any MLB organization giving them anywhere near what an NPB team will.

In fact, Lee is likely to sign a two-year contract for at least 800 million yen ($8 million) this off-season, either with his old team the Orix Buffaloes or new suitor the Hanshin Tigers.

Soon-to-be 30 year old set-up man Scott Mathieson had a 1.03 ERA in 63 games pitched for the Yomiuri Giants this past season with a pitching line of 61 IP, 36 hits, two HRs and 18 BBs allowed and 77 Ks.  It’s entirely possible a season like that could get him back into MLB.

As a final note, store the name Hideto Asamura in the back of your mind for future reference.  As a 22 year old 1Bman for the Seibu Lions, he hit .317 and led the Pacific League with a .554 slugging percentage and a .942 OPS.  If he continues to improve as he matures, you’ll be hearing a lot about him in five year’s time.

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8 Comments on “Japanese NPB Players Most Likely to Join MLB in 2014”

  1. Burly Says:

    Masahiro Tanaka won his first Japan Series start, beating the Yomiuri Giants, probably the best hitting team in this year’s NPB, 2-1. What is surprising about this outcome is that it occurred in Game 2 of the series, rather than Game 1.

    Tanaka had pitched one inning in the last game of the second round of the Climax Series on October 21, and the first game of the Japan Series was October 26, so Tanaka certainly had time to rest fully before Game 1. However, since Tetsuya Utsumi and three Giants relievers combined for a shutout in Game 1, saving Tanaka for Game 2 turned out to be the best decision, even if it’s unlikely a MLB team would hold back their best starter on adequate rest from Game 1 of the World Series.

  2. Burly Says:

    mlbtraderumors.com today (10/31) reports that the Hanshin Tigers have offered pitcher Randy Messenger a three-year $15 million deal to remain with the team. If so, it would be the richest contract the Tigers have ever offered to a foreign player, and likely the richest contract the Tigers have offered to any player. Also, it is likely a better offer than any MLB team will offer Messenger this off-season.

    • Burly Says:

      This has since been updated to state that the Tigers’ actual offer to Messenger is $10 million over three years with another $5 million in performance bonuses. It’s also reported that Messenger has given MLB teams until November 15th to make him offers.

      • Burly Says:

        Randy Messenger has reportedly resigned with the Hanshin Tigers. Hanshin may have sweetened their offer slightly, since Messenger didn’t wait until November 15th to resign.

  3. Burly Says:

    Yakyu Baka today reports that Chunichi Dragons closer Hitoki Iwase resigned for 370 million yen ($3.76 million as of today) for 2014, the same salary he received in 2013. Seemed like he deserved a raise after his fine 2013 season.

  4. Burly Says:

    The Hanshin Tigers today announced that shortstop Takahashi Toritani will not be exercising his international free agent option and thus will be remaining with the Tigers in 2014

  5. Burly Says:

    Latest word on Kenta Maeda is that he is reportedly interested in coming to the U.S. and MLB in 2015, meaning he’ll likely request to be posted next off-season.

  6. Burly Says:

    Japanese news sources say that Shunsuke Watanabe, a right-handed submariner long of the Chiba Lotte Mariners, will sign a minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox. I didn’t mention him in my post above because he’s old, pitched in only six games last year, and hasn’t been a particularly good NPB pitcher for years. I don’t see him becoming a successful major league pitcher, but, of course, you never know.


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