Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2019-2020

MLB teams are now, or at least should be, looking to Japan’s NPB for new pitchers every off-season.  Yusei Kikuchi‘s first MLB season in 2019 was a major disappointment, particularly in light of the four-year $56M guarantee he received, but that doesn’t mean that other 2019 NPB pitchers don’t deserve an MLB shot at the right price.  Without further ado, here’s my list of Japan’s top pitching prospects for MLB purposes heading into the 2019-2020 off-season:

Kodei Senga (27 in 2020; 2023 MLB ETA). Senga is not real big (6″1″, 185 lbs), but he’s not real small either, and he has the kind of strikeout rates that MLB teams want to see from an NPB pitcher (857 Ks in 739.1 NPB career IP).  2019 was his best NPB season to date.  Senga led NPB with 227 Ks (in an NPB-leading 180.1 IP), and his 2.79 ERA was fifth best out of NPB’s 15 qualifiers (starters are pitching fewer innings in NPB now than they used to only a few years ago, just like in MLB).

Senga could have been more consistent this year, but he threw a no-hitter in early September in which he reportedly hit 98.8 mph on the radar gun.  That will catch MLB teams’ attention everywhere.  Also, he’s had better NPB career strikeout stuff than Kikuchi, who only had one NPB season with a K/IP rate above 9.0.

Senga apparently requested to be posted last off-season, but his team, the SoftBank Hawks refused the request.  As one of NPB’s three rich teams, the Hawks may well refuse to post Senga until he becomes a true free agent after nine seasons of NPB service, which occurs most likely after the 2022 or 2023 season.  Calculating service time in NPB is a bit complicated — here’s an article on that subject.

Takahiro Norimoto (29; 2020-2021).  Norimoto is a small right-hander (5’10”, 180 lbs) with tremendous strikeout stuff, who could be described either 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 Kenta Maeda, he’s got that harder to define “ability to pitch,” which produced better NPB ERAs than Norimoto without the same strikeout stuff.)

Norimoto missed the first half of the 2019 NPB season after having elbow surgery to remove loose bodies.  It may have been good for him to get the time off, because he pitched a lot of innings from 2013 through 2018.  Once he came back, he pitched great in 12 starts, posting a 2.78 ERA with a pitching line of 68 IP, 58 hits, 7 HR and 10 BB allowed and 67 K.  His strikeout rate was down a little, but his K/BB rate was the best of his career and his hits and HRs per 9IP were consistent with his career rates.

Norimoto should now have seven seasons of NPB service, and it’s possible that his team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, could post him for MLB this off-season.  If that happens and I were a MLB decision-maker, I would fall all over myself making him the kind of incentive-laden contract offer the Dodgers gave Kenta Maeda a few off-seasons ago.

Shun Yamaguchi (32, 2020).  His three-year deal with the Yomiuri Giants should be up this off-season, so he may be available if he decides he wants to prove he’s an MLB pitcher.  He’s coming off his best season as a starter, going 15-4 with a 2.91 ERA and 188 K in 170 IP.

I see Yamaguchi as a reliever in MLB, at least in the long run, and the Yomiuri Giants will probably offer him four years and 2 billion yen ($18.6M) to continue as a starter, which is more than I see any MLB team offering him.  Thus, Yamaguchi will only come to MLB if he really wants to prove he can play with the best.

Tomoyuki Sugano (30; 2022). Alas, Father Time and heavy workloads appear to have caught up with Yomiuri Giants’ ace Tomoyuki Sugano.  He went 11-6 this season, but was highly inconsistent and was troubled with recurring back problems much of the season.  He finished with a 3.89 ERA and 120 K in 136.1 IP, almost certainly because of the afore-mentioned back problems.  It’s looking less likely that he’ll ever leave NPB than it did a year ago.

Shota Imanaga (26; 2023-2024). Another small right-hander (5’10”, 180 lbs) who can really pitch, Imanaga came back from a disasterous 2018 campaign to be one of NPB’s best starters in 2019.  He finished 13-7 with a 2.91 ERA, striking out 186 batters in 170 innings pitched.  It remains to be seen whether his arm can hold up long enough for him to reach MLB, but he looked a lot like a younger version of Takahiro Norimoto in 2019.

Zach Neal (31, 2020).  After a 12-1 season for the Seibu Lions in which he posted a 2.87 ERA but struck out only 51 batters in 100.1 IP, mlbtraderumors.com reported about ten days ago that many MLB teams have interest in signing Neal this off-season.  Color me unimpressed, but at least he will be available this off-season.

If neither Yusei Kikuchi nor Takahiro Norimoto is posted this off-season, then the best candidates for MLB teams to sign this off-season are foreign (to Japan) relievers coming off great 2019 seasons.  All of Pierce Johnson (29), Joely Rodriguez (28), Edwin Escobar (28), Geronimo Franzua (26) and Alan Busenitz (29) pitched well enough in NPB to merit serious consideration from MLB teams this off-season.  I like them in the order listed.

Pierce Johnson had an ugly 5.56 ERA as a 27 year old rookie for the San Francisco Giants in 2018, but his ratios suggested he could develop into a useful major league middle reliever.  He elected to pitch in Japan in 2019 for more money and was absolutely terrific.  As the Hanshin Tigers’ set-up man, he posted a 1.38 ERA with a pitching line of 58.2 IP, 34 hits, two HRs and 13 BB allowed and 91 K.  If Hanshin doesn’t have an option for 2020, at least one MLB team should offer Johnson a two-year $4M deal this off-season IMHO.

Joely Rodriguez recorded a 1.64 ERA in 2019 with a pitching line of 60.1 IP, 42 hits, three HR and 14 BB and 77 K.  Rodriguez’ past MLB record isn’t as impressive as Pierce Johnson’s, but Rodriguez is a year younger.

Edwin Escobar posted a 2.51 ERA with a pitching line of 75.1 IP, 60 hits, 7 HR and 24 BB and 88 K.  After three seasons in NPB, Escobar might be ready for a return to MLB.

Geronimo Franzua is a left-hander who washed out of MLB’s Dominican Summer League years ago, but later caught on with the Hiroshima Carp through a try-out at the team’s training facilities in the Dominican Republic.  After a season in which he recorded a 2.76 ERA and 94 K in 71.2 IP, Franzua would rank higher on this list of relievers, except that the Carp might have signed him to a long-term, team-friendly contract in light of the time and money the Carp spent to develop Franzua into an NPB star.

Alan Busenitz posted a 1.94 ERA with a pitching line of 51 IP, 46 hits, one HR and 20 BB and 45 K.  The strikeout and walks rates don’t impress but the home run rate sure does.  Like Pierce Johnson, Busenitz has some limited history of MLB success.

Yuki Matsui (24; 2022) and Livan Moinelo (24, ?).  A couple of small young, extremely talented left-handers, Matsui and Moinelo both pitched extremely well in 2019.  Matsui had a 1.94 ERA and 38 saves as the Rakuten Golden Eagles’ closer.  He struck out 107 batters in 69.2 IP.  Moinelo recorded a 1.54 ERA with 86 Ks in 59.1 IP mainly as a set-up man for the SoftBank Hawks.

Matsui could be posted as soon as next off-season.  Moinelo is a Cuban who has not defected, which means he could spend the rest of his professional career pitching in Japan and Cuba.

Yasuaki Yamasaki (27; 2023).  A small right-hander (5’11”, 187 lbs) who has saved 163 games in five NPB seasons.  He posted an excellent 1.95 ERA in 2019, but his strikeout rate was (54 K in 60 IP) was the lowest of his career to date.  He could be headed for an arm injury.

Bookmark “Em: Yashinobu Yamamoto (21), Atsuke Taneichi (21), Shinnosuke Ogasawara (22), Naoya Ishikawa (23), Raidel Martinez (23), Taisuke Yamaoka (24) and Haruhiro Hamaguchi (25) 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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, NPB, San Francisco Giants

6 Comments on “Best Pitching Prospects in Japan’s NPB 2019-2020”

  1. Burly Says:

    In his start yesterday against the usually heavy hitting Seibu Lions in the final stage of NPB’s Climax Series (essentially the Pacific League championship series), Senga threw eight shutout innings, allowing only two hits and striking out 10. I suspect that many MLB scouts were in attendance.

    • Burly Says:

      Kodei Senga won the first game of the 2019 Nippon Series, allowing one run over seven innings against the Yomiuri Giants.

  2. Burly Says:

    The Zach Neal rumors reached a quick end: he re-signed with the Seibu Lions for two years and a guaranteed $4 million plus incentives. The rumors that multiple MLB teams wanted Neal sure gave him and his agent leverage to obtain what seems like a generous deal from the Lions.

  3. Burly Says:

    The Chiba Lotte Marines just drafted Roki Sasaki, an 18 year old with a reported 101 mph fastball. mlbtraderumors.com says MLB teams hoped to lure Sasaki away but weren’t able to do it. Plenty of time for Sasaki to ruin his arm in Japan, but MLB does love its 100+ mph pitchers.

  4. Burly Says:

    The Hanshin Tigers reportedly just made Pierce Johnson a two-year contract offer for 2020-2021. However, Johnson’s wife just had a baby, so he may wish to return to the States if an MLB club is interested.

  5. Burly Says:

    Jim Allen reports that Shun Yamaguchi has expressed interest in playing in MLB, but Allen seems to think this would not happen before next off-season. Maybe Yamaguchi has another year on his contract with the Yomiuri Giants?


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