Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2018/2019

With the MLB success of Shohei Ohtani, Miles Mikelos and Yoshihisa Hirano in 2018, I think we’ve reached a point where MLB teams realize they need to look to Japan’s NPB as a source of potential prime talent every off-season.  Without further ado, here’s a list of Japan’s top pitching prospects for MLB purposes, as I see it:

Yusei Kikuchi (28 years old in 2019).  Kikuchi is clearly the top NPB prospect for MLB this off-season.  He’s a left-handed starter with stuff, he’s got an MLB sized body (6’0″, 220 lbs), and his NPB team, the Seibu Lions, have already announced that they are willing to post him this off-season.

After a break out season in 2017, when he was arguably NPB’s best pitcher (he lost the Eiji Sawamura Award to Tomoyuki Sugano, who is listed two spots down), Kikuchi was merely very, very good in 2018.  He finished 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA, which was second best among qualifiers in NPB’s Pacific League.  He struck out 153 batters, good for fourth in his league, in 163.2 IP.

Kikuchi hit 98 mph with his fastball in a regular season game in late July or early August 2017, but I didn’t see any reports of him matching that number in 2018.  MLBtraderumors.com provided a good scouting report on Kikuchi when the Seibu Lions announced they were willing to post him.

Takahiro Norimoto (28; 2020-2021).  Norimoto is a small right-hander (5’10”, 180 lbs) with tremendous strikeout stuff, who could be described as Kenta Maeda with more strikeouts or NPB’s answer to Tim Lincecum.  The problem with Norimoto is whether he can last any longer than Lincecum did.  (In fairness to Maeda, he’s got that harder to define “ability to pitch,” which produced better NPB ERAs than Norimoto without the same strikeout stuff.)

Norimoto had a mixed 2018.  He went 10-11 with a 3.69 ERA, sixth best out of nine Pacific League qualifiers, but he led the league with 187 Ks in 180.1 IP.  His walks and home run rate were up, and his strikeout rate was down (although still excellent).  However, he also became the fifth fastest pitcher to reach 1,000 NPB career strikeouts this year, and three of the four who accomplished the feat faster pitched in MLB.

We will have a better idea a year from now, which may well be when he gets posted, if his 2018 season was just a blip or an indication that he’s been pitched too many innings over too many years at a young age in Japan.

Tomoyuki Sugano (29; 2022).  Sugano is a virtual lock on winning his second consecutive Eiji Sawamura Award (NPB’s Cy Young) in 2018.  He’s a tremendous pitcher who led NPB in ERA (2.14), innings pitched (202) and strikeouts (200).  He threw eight shutouts in the regular season (NPB starters only pitch once a week, so teams let a starter go deeper in the game if he’s pitching well) and a no-hitter in the first round of the play-offs, a game in which he was one walk away from a perfect game.

Alas, his team, the Yomiuri Giants, have never posted a player in their history, and it’s unlikely they will start with Sugano.  That means he won’t come to MLB before his age 32 season.  However, I’ve read reports that Sugano does want to pitch in MLB eventually.  Maybe he can be the next Hiroki Kuroda.  He’s got the talent for it.

Kodei Senga (26; 2023-2024). Senga is not real big (6″1″, 185 lbs), but he’s not real small either.  He’s not one of NPB’s top tier starters, but he’s consistently very good and has the kind of strikeout rates you want to see in an MLB prospect (630 NPB career Ks in 559 IP).

In 2018, Senga went 13-7 with a 3.51 ERA.  He struck out 163 batters in 141 innings pitched.  He’s just good enough every year that, if he stays healthy, at least MLB team will look to him as a low cost, high upside sign when his time comes.

Shintaro Fujinami (25; 2021-2023).  I don’t have enough information to know what’s wrong with Fujinami.  He’s a tremendous talent, who may or may not have been overworked to the point where he is no longer a good NPB pitcher.

Fujinami had his second suck-ass season in a row, but it’s unclear whether the criminal overwork the Hanshin Tigers put him through early in his career has taken it’s tole, or he’s just lost the ability to throw strikes.  On July 29, 2017, he hit 98 mph with a fastball in an NPB minor league game.  This year, he had a major league 5.32 ERA with 70Ks, but 47 walks, in 71 IP.  This was actually an improvement in his command compared to 2017.  In the NPB minors this year, he had a 1.14 ERA with 60Ks and only 23 walks allowed in 63 IP.

Fujinami is still young enough and talented enough that he has to be on this list.  It remains to be seen whether he can regain the success he experienced in 2015, when only Shohei Ohtani’s star shown brighter.

Yuki Matsui (23; 2022).  A small (5’8.5″, 163 lbs) left-hander with electric stuff (457 Ks in 370 career NPB innings pitched), Yuki Matsui was used in a variety of roles by the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2018.  He started the season as the team’s closer, was apparently demoted to a set-up role and then late in the season was used as a starter.  His 3.65 ERA was high, but so were his 91 Ks in 66.2 IP.

As I wrote two years ago, it’s anybody’s guess whether a pitcher this small and this young can hold up to the often high-stress workload of a closer (or however the Golden Eagles elect to use him) long-term.  If his arm holds up, he’ll be young when his time to get posted arrives.

Naoyuki Uwasawa (25, 2022).  A right-handed starter big enough (6’2″, 196 lbs) to interest MLB teams, Uwasawa had his best season so far in 2018.  His 3.16 ERA was third best among Pacific League qualifiers, and he struck out 151 batters in 165.1 IP.  He had a strong rookie season in 2014, but this year was the first time he had the kind of strikeout rate you’d like for an NPB pitcher to be a legitimate MLB prospect.

Yasuaki Yamasaki (26; 2023).  A small right-hander (5’11”, 187 lbs) who has saved 133 games in his four NPB seasons and has a career 2.44 ERA and 274 Ks in 236 IP.  My guess is that he would be a set-up man in MLB.

Pitchers available this off-season include Yuki NIshi, Spencer Patton, Jay Jackson and Geronimo Franzua.  Yuki Nishi will be 28 next season, and he earned his domestic free agent option this season. He reportedly asked his team, the Orix Buffaloes, to post him this off-season, but the Buffaloes reportedly refused.  Nishi is a good pitcher, but he’s a small right-hander (5’11”, 176 lbs) whose strikeout rates don’t match most of the Japanese pitchers who go on to MLB success.  The Buffaloes are reportedly likely to offer him a three or four year deal this off-season, and that might well be his best option financially.

I like Spencer Patton’s chances of returning to MLB as an inexpensive set-up man at the two-year $4M amount that Chris Martin signed for with the Texas Rangers last off-season.  Martin’s 2018 performance was not particularly impressive on paper, but fangraphs says it was worth $4.4M, which means Martin has already paid off his full contract amount with another season to go.

Patton had an ugly 6.26 ERA in 54.2 MLB career innings pitched, but he also struck out 58 batters.  There’s no question that he has major league stuff, but his lack of command hurt him in the past.  His command seems to have improved in Japan, where over two NPB seasons, he struck out 133 batters in 116 IP while walking only 35.  Patton will be 31 next season.

Jay Jackson will also be 31 next year, and he’s put in three strong seasons as a reliever in NPB.  Jackson doesn’t have as strong an MLB system track record as Patton, but MLB teams might be interested in signing Jackson if the price is right.

Geronimo Franzua is a left-hander who washed out of the Dominican Summer League years ago, but caught on with the Hiroshima Carp through a try-out in the Dominican Republic.  (It was a good year for the Carp in this regard: they signed another low minors castoff, Xavier Batista, at a tryout, and he hit 25 HRs for them in only 302 plate appearances this season.)  Franzua had a 1.66 ERA mostly in a relief role and struck out 81 batters in 65 innings of work.  He only just turned 25, so he could well appeal to MLB teams.

It’s possible, however, that the Carp have Franzua signed to long-term, low-salary deal, to take into account that the team would have to develop him at the minor league level when they signed him.  MLB teams might also want to see Franzua do it two years in a row in NPB before shelling out to bring him back to the Americas.

Bookmark “EmShinnosuke Ogasawara (age 21 next season), Naoya Ishikawa (22), Katsuki Azuma (23) and Haruhiro Hamaguchi (24) are some young, talented NPB pitchers who still have many seasons in which to blow out their arms before they might become available to MLB teams.  I’ll be keeping an eye on them going forward.

As a final note, Takayuki Kishi and Hirotoshi Masui are two excellent NPB pitchers we’ll probably never see in MLB.  Both are small right-handers who are well over 30 and in the middle of multi-year contracts with their current NPB teams.

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9 Comments on “Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2018/2019”

  1. Burly Says:

    My educated guess is that at least three MLB teams will post the maximum $20M in order to negotiate with Yusei Kikuchi and that he ends up signing a four year deal with a $40M to $50M guarantee and a team option for a fifth season.

  2. Burly Says:

    Tomoyuki Sugano did win the 2018 Sawamura Award unanimously. I sure hope he wants to pitch in MLB when he becomes a true NPB free agent after nine seasons.

  3. Burly Says:

    For what it’s worth, both Tomoyuki Sugano and Kodei Senga have reportedly had their tonsils taken out this month. Presumably, these minor surgeries will have no effect on their future pitching abilities.

  4. Burly Says:

    Yuki Nishi is remaining in NPB, having reached a four-year 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) deal with the Hanshin Tigers. There are some reports that the SoftBank Hawks offered him considerably more over four years, but I have my doubts.

  5. Burly Says:

    Takahiro Norimoto is expected to miss the first three and half months of the 2019 regular season after having his right elbow surgically “cleaned out” in mid-March. I assume that means he had bone chips or other loose bodies or bone spurs removed.

  6. Burly Says:

    Nine starts into the 2019 NPB season, Kodei Senga is leading both NPB leagues with a 1.38 ERA and 89 Ks (in 65 IP).

  7. Burly Says:

    Takahiro Norimoto hit 150 kph (93.2 mph) on consecutive pitches of a rehab game today. He says he’s about 60% of the way back from the surgery he had to clean out his pitching elbow.

  8. Burly Says:

    Takahiro Norimoto made his first 2019 NPB start today. He threw six shutout innings and struck out six.

    • Burly Says:

      In his second start today, Takahiro Norimoto allowed only one hit across seven innings pitched while striking out nine. Alas, he also allowed a run and lost the game 1-0. That’s baseball.


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