NPB Players Most Likely to Join MLB in 2016
With the KC Royals having convincing won the 2015 World Series, it’s a good time for my annual post on the NPB players most likely to join MLB next year. Here are the best bets:
Kenta Maeda. I don’t think there is any doubt that Kenta Maeda will be pitching in MLB in 2016. The main questions are how much of a posting fee and contract he will command, and whether he is big enough to succeed as a starting pitcher in MLB.
Maeda had his typical NPB season in 2015. He went 15-8 with a 2.09 ERA with a pitching line of 206.1 IP, 168 hits, 41 BBs and 175 Ks. In terms of his league (NPB’s Central League) and NPB overall, his ranks are as follows — wins: 1st, 1st (tied); ERA: 4th, 4th; IP: 2nd, 2nd; and Ks: 3rd, 5th. The only knock on Maeda, if you can call it that, is that he is typically among the top five NPB starters every year, rather than being the clear No. 1 or No. 2 as Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka were before they came to MLB.
The Diamondbacks have been identified as a team particularly interested in Maeda. I seem to recall reading that the Red Sox are also interested.
The main concern about Maeda is that he is a small right-hander (just shy of six feet tall but only 178 lbs, according to NPB’s website) who has pitched a lot of innings in Japan through his age 27 season. Some MLB scouts don’t believe that Maeda is big enough to handle pitching every fifth day — NPB starters only pitch about once a week. I don’t have any doubt that Maeda could be a strong MLB relief pitcher, but at least one MLB team is expected to give him a starting pitcher’s salary commitment.
My guestimate is that the team that wants him most will bid the full $20 million maximum posting fee, and then try to sign him for four years at around $25 million. I don’t see many teams making the full $20 million posting fee, so I don’t see him getting a contract for much more than $25 million.
Seung-hwan Oh. After two very successful seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, the South Korean closer wants to come to MLB at age 33. I think an MLB team will sign him, but I don’t expect his first MLB contract will be any more than he could earn staying in Japan. My belief is that Oh could command a two-year one billion yen contract ($8.25 million) from the Hanhin Tigers for 2016 and 2017. It’s hard to imagine an MLB team paying more.
When Oh left South Korea’s KBO two years ago, I thought that he was an MLB-caliber pitcher. Ditto after his first season (2014) in NPB. However, his 2015 wasn’t as good as the year before, and he’s getting up there in age. While he saved 41 games in 2015, two more than the year before, all the numbers you want to see down were up in 2015 and his K/IP rate was down. While he hasn’t pitched an unreasonable number of regular season innings in either 2014 and 2015 (under 70 each season), he was worked hard in the 2014 post-season, when the Tigers went to the Japan Series.
I still think he’s worth a two-year $7 million investment by an MLB team. However, the NPB closer I’d most want to gamble on right now is Dennis Sarfate, whose ERA was under 1.10 with tremendous ratios over the last two NPB seasons and who seems to have developed MLB command to go with his always terrific stuff. Sarfate will be 35 next year, but I thinks he’s also worth a two-year $7 million investment.
Dae-ho Lee. The MVP of the 2015 Japan Series, Lee wants to move up to MLB for his age 34 season. I think it would be a huge mistake for an MLB team to sign Lee for anything more than a one deal in the $1M to $2M range. Lee has had a fine four year NPB career, but I think NPB is the highest level at which he can be a star.
After four seasons without any significant injuries, Lee has an NPB slash line of .293/.370/.486. That’s enough to make him an NPB star, but it isn’t enough to suggest he’d be anything but a right-handed pinch hitter in MLB. He has power in NPB to a degree that I would expect to disappear in MLB’s larger ballparks against better pitching.
Add to his not sufficiently impressive offensive numbers his complete lack of speed. Lee is probably the slowest player in NPB, so slow that it actually appears to obviously impact his ability to score runs. In his four NPB seasons, Lee has averaged 60.5 runs scored per season, in spite of playing almost all of his team’s regular season games during those four seasons, posting an average .370 on-base percentage and averaging 28 doubles and 24.5 HRs per season. Sure, he’s a bottom of the middle of the line-up hitter who drives in runs, but after four full seasons, a player with his power and ability to get on base scores so few runs only if he is exceptionally slow.
A player as slow as Lee will not get on base all that often in MLB, with its better fielding, better pitching and defensive shifts. His power is likely to disappear, and he will never, ever move up more than one base at a time. At 34 in 2016, he is unquestionably old for an MLB hitter. It would take a foolish MLB team indeed to invest more than a minimal sum by current MLB standards on Lee.
Lee would be better off staying in Japan where the SoftBank Hawks would give him at least $10M over two seasons. Sometimes it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a minnow in the ocean.
Tony Barnette. After a terrific 2015 season (1.29 ERA and 41 saves) in which he was a major reason the Yakult Swallows made the Japan Series, Barnette wants to play in MLB for the first time at age 32. Barnette never made it past AAA before going to Japan. The Diamondbacks tried to develop him as a starter, which in retrospect was obviously a mistake.
The Swallows have posted him to see if MLB teams will bite, in the hopes that they won’t, and the Swallows will be able to re-sign him afterwards.
MLB teams, as far as I am aware, aren’t particularly impressed with American pitchers who never pitched in MLB before going to Japan and establishing themselves. Barnette, when he has been good in Japan, has been very, very good, but he has not been consistent.
If an MLB team is willing to make Barnette a $1M to $2M guarantee for 2016, he may elect to return to the U.S. However, it is no sure thing that an MLB team would commit even that amount to a 32 year old with no prior MLB experience who is likely to be a set-up man in any event.
Takayuki Kishi. Kishi and the next two pitchers are the best true free agents in this year’s class. Kishi is kind of a poor man’s Kenta Maeda, who I think could be an effective MLB reliever, if his arm is healthy. NPB’s website lists him as 5’11” and only 163 lbs.
However, his career NPB stats are impressive: 94-58 record with a 3.11 ERA and a pitching line of 1390.2 IP, 1178 hits, 353 BBs and 1139 Ks. Kishi was hurt for part of 2015, but if his arm is healthy, I think he could be an effective MLB reliever if used in the same limited manner than Sergio Romo was used when he was a top set-up man for the San Francisco Giants a couple of years ago. Kishi will be 31 in 2016.
Yoshihisa Hirano. Hirano will be 32 in 2016, and he has been a top reliever in NPB for a number of years now. He had injury problems in 2015, but still struck out more than one batter per inning pitched. However, Hirano signed a three-year deal with the Orix Buffaloes for 900 million yen ($7.43 M) before the 2015 season and has said he doesn’t intend to exercise his free agent option, so it’s unlikely he’ll come to MLB in 2016.
Koji Aoyama. Another 32 year old who has been an effective reliever in Japan for some time with good ratios, Aoyama is another small right-hander (5’11”, 176 lbs), which won’t help his chances getting a generous major league contract.
Nobuhiro Matsuda. The only true NPB free agent position player who generates any enthusiasm, Matsuda had his best season at age 32 as the 3Bman for the Japan Series Champion SoftBank Hawks. He’s been a solid performer for years, and his third base defensive numbers suggest he’s got a strong arm but not great range.
I don’t know what his plans are, but I expect that the SoftBank Hawks, one of NPB’s three wealthy teams, will make him a four-year offer in the $12M to $16M range. I can’t see an MLB team matching that.