[The post-2016 season update is here.]
About a year ago, I wrote about the top Japanese pitching prospects for MLB. That list hasn’t changed much either in the last year, which tends to make me think that this list is pretty much on the mark in rating the top Japanese pitchers.
Shohei Otani. He remains the NPB pitcher most likely to be the next Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka. He’s big (6’4″, 198 lbs), he’s young, he’s extremely good, and I am pleasantly surprised to see that his NPB team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, hasn’t been overworking him. His 1.43 ERA is easily the best in NPB’s Pacific League, his 117 strike outs is league-best, and his 94.1 IP is only 8th most in the league more than half way through the 2015 season. Otani turned 21 on July 5th, and he will be an MLB star one day if he remains healthy.
Kenta Maeda and Shintaro Fujinami. It’s difficult to rank these two against each other, because they are so different. If Maeda doesn’t get hurt before the end of the 2015 season, he’ll be pitching in MLB next season. He will have eight years of NPB service, which means his team, the Hiroshima Carp, will be posting him this off-season. Otherwise, they will lose him to unrestricted free agency after the 2016, and he will come to America or sign with one of Japan’s three rich teams.
Maeda is pitching exactly as expected this season. His 2.04 ERA is 2nd best in the Central League, his 103 strike outs is 3rd best, and his 119.1 IP is 2nd best. He has an almost 5/1 K/BB ratio.
The questions about Maeda are the fact that he’s a small right-hander who has thrown a lot of innings through what is now his age 27 season. Will he suffer a quick decline like Tim Lincecum, or will pitching every fifth game bring on injuries as it may have done for Darvish and Tanaka? There isn’t any way to know, but I think he’s worth an investment of four years and $40 million (posting fee and salary), even if he ends up as a reliever in MLB.
Fujinami is young (21 this year), tall (6’6″ but only 194 lbs) and progressing very nicely, thank you. His 2.62 ERA is currently 5th best in the Central League, his 120 Ks is best in NPB, and his 113.1 IP is third most in the Central League, although high pitch totals aren’t what you want to see from a pitcher this young. The only negative things you can say about Fujinami as an MLB prospect are that he isn’t Shohei Otani and that he pitches for one of NPB’s rich teams, the Hanshin Tigers, meaning he’s less likely to leave Japan for greener pastures than a player playing for a low-revenue NPB team.
Shota Takeda. Takeda is a 22 year old right-hander who is pitching in his fourth NPB season. He appears to have had an injury of some sort last year, and 2015 is the first season in which he’s been a regular starter since early in the season. His 3.32 ERA is currently 9th best in the Pacific League, and he has 92 Ks in 95 innings pitched.
The fact that Takeda hasn’t thrown a lot of innings until 2015 is probably a good thing. His career NPB ERA is 2.65 in 298.1 career IP, and his won/loss record is 22-11. In other words, there are lots of reasons to think he’s the real deal. He’s currently listed as 6’1″ and 187 lbs, which is big enough for his age.
Takahiro Norimoto. A 24 year old right-hander in his 3rd full NPB season, his 3.30 ERA is 8th best in the Pacific League, his 109 K’s are 2nd best and his 106.1 IP is most. Norimoto is a small right-hander who has already thrown a lot of NPB innings.
Naoyuki Uwasawa. He had fine rookie season at age 20 in 2014, and his listed size is good (6’2″, 194 lbs). However, he has taken a big step back so far this season, with his ERA up almost eight-tenths of a run and his strikeout rate down sharply. He’s still listed listed here mainly because he’s so young.
Yuki Nishi. Another small right-hander (5’11”, 176 lbs), the main things going for Nishi is that he can pitch, and he’ll have five full years of NPB service through his age 24 season. His ERA is currently 3rd best in the Pacific League, and he has great ratios, but there’s little reason to think he could be anything better than a relief pitcher whose innings are carefully measured in MLB. In my mind, Sergio Romo would be the best comp for maximum upside for this Japanese pitcher.
Tomoyuki Sugano. A terrific young NPB pitcher who does not project to leave Japan. His 1.73 ERA currently leads the Central League, and his 2.33 ERA in 2014 also led the league. However, his strike out rate has steadily declined to 5.3 so far this season, and he’s 25 this year in only his third full NPB season. He also plays for the Yomiuri Giants, NPB’s wealthiest team by far, so he’ll make plenty of money staying in Japan.