Every year, a couple of players make the journey from Japan to Major League Baseball. Those who do come on one of many paths. In this post I’ll walk through what those paths are, and which players could be headed down each this season.
The path most traveled is that of free agency. International NPB free agency is difficult to attain, requiring nine years of service time, where a year is defined as 150 days on the active roster of a top level team. Time spent on the injured list usually does not count toward free agency, though sometimes players are credited retroactively for time missed.
Put it all together and you have a system that allows very few players to attain free agency privileges before age 30. The 2009 class was weak, with only Ryota Igarashi commanding an MLB deal, and the 2010 class doesn’t figure to be any better. Nonetheless, there are a couple names to keep an eye on.
- Tatsuhiko Kinjo (OF, Yokoham BayStars) — had an unreal season in 2000, but has been a pretty average contact hitter in recent years. Would be an MLB 4th outfielder.
- Hiroyuki Kobayashi (RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines) — under-appreciated righty is coming off a couple rough seasons and will be moved to the bullpen in 2010.
The Posting System
I’ll take it for granted that most readers of this site have heard of the posting system, which allows NPB teams to auction players who are not free agents to MLB teams. If you haven’t, check out the Wikipedia page on the topic. In the 11-year history of the posting system, only 10 players have been successfully posted, and none since Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura, and Kei Igawa in 2006. The last attempted use of the posting system was in the 2008-9 offseason, when Seibu twice honored lefty Koji Mitsui’s request to be posted. There were no takers.
Why would an NPB use the posting system? In some cases it has been a courtesy to the player; other times the team is trying to get something in return for an obviously MLB-bound player, just like MLB teams trade impending free agents.
Two star pitchers have made it known that they want to move to MLB sooner rather than later. It is, of course, up to the team to agree to post them.
- Wei-Yin Chen (LHP, Chunichi Dragons) — Chen is a 23-year-old Taiwanese lefty with an electric arm, coming off a breakout season in which he put up a 1.54 ERA over 164 innings. Chunichi doesn’t want to let him go, but he’s putting pressure on the team through the media and has retained agent Alan Nero with an eye toward an MLB move.
- Kyuji Fujikawa (RHP, Hanshin Tigers) — Fujikawa is Japan’s top closer (86 Ks in 57.2 IP in 2009), and has been talking on and off about moving to MLB for years. Hanshin has consistently said “no way,” but he keeps asking, and maybe they’ll cave before he hits free agency.
Japanese teams release players every year, just like their MLB counterparts. You wouldn’t expect a player who’s failed to perform well enough to stay employed in Japan to be much of an MLB prospect, but increasingly Japanese players see the US minor leagues as life beyond NPB. A recent notable example is Ryohei Tanaka, who put up better numbers at Double-A in the Orioles organization than he ever did for Chiba Lotte’s farm team.
Amateur Free Agency
For many years, MLB and NPB were bound by an unofficial agreement barring MLB teams from signing draft-eligible amateur Japanese players as free agents. Then Junichi Tazawa came along in 2008 and disrupted the system. High school lefty Yusei Kikuchi might have followed suit in 2009, but NPB put on a full court press, and he gave into social pressures and wound up getting drafted and signed by the Seibu Lions.
Slightly beneath the surface, less celebrated Japanese prospects have been signing with MLB clubs for years, though only two (Mac Suzuki and Kazuhito Tadano) have reached the majors. This last offseason, the Mariners signed high school player Pedro Okuda and the Indians inked college righty Takafumi Nakamura. So we’ll see a range of talent sign as amateur free agents; from 1st round draft-level talent to more raw players with some upside.
My opinion is that it’s a matter of time before we see another top NPB draft prospect challenge the system and sign with an MLB club. It could happen this year, as we’re looking forward to a deep draft class. I won’t speculate on any specific names just yet; that will come once the high school and college seasons begin.
In a given year, the 12 NPB teams collectively have about 70 foreign players under contract, the vast majority of whom arrived in Japan via MLB affiliated ball. Turnover tends to be very high, and a good number of those players (30%-50%) won’t be back for another season. Most of the players returning Stateside after playing in Japan wind up on Triple-A rosters, but occasionally a few gems come through. This offseason, Colby Lewis and Scott Atchison both got MLB deals after playing two years in Japan.
While I don’t see a talent of Lewis’s caliber on the horizon, there are a couple of interesting relievers to look out for:
- Brian Falkenborg (RHP, SoftBank Hawks) — Falkenborg fits the fringey MLB reliever with good velocity and middling control profile that NPB teams like. His first year in Japan was outstanding, running a 1.74 ERA and 61:9 K:BB over 51.1 innings pitched.
- Juan Morillo (RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) — Morillo has yet to throw his first pitch in Japan, but he has Brian Wilson-esque velocity still has some upside at 26. If he can learn to throw strikes in Japan he’ll get MLB attention.