While hundreds of thousands of MLB fans stay glued to mlbtraderumors.com in anticipation of July 31’s non-waiver trade deadline, another trade deadline will pass, probably uneventfully, on the other side of the Pacific.
Earlier this week, the Yomiuri Giants and Rakuten Golden Eagles consummated NPB’s ninth* in-season trade this year, exchanging pitchers Masafumi Togano and Hideki Asai. This may not seem like a huge number, but it’s the most in-season trades I’ve seen in any season since I started following Japanese baseball closely. For comparison’s sake, last year NPB saw a single in-season trade: Seibu acquiring pitcher Taiyo Fujita from Hanshin for futility infielder Keisuke Mizuta. 2008 had four in-season trades.
I can’t quite explain the increase in activity. Many of the deals that happened this year were for teams to address depth problems caused by injuries. It’s unusual in Japan to see established players traded for prospects. Accordingly, the players that have changed hands this year were either bench players, relief pitchers or non-prospect fringe players. In my view, Orix pulled the heist of the season when they got Masayuki Hasegawa, a starter with a good arm but a poor medical record, and Go Kida, a proven pinch hitter; in exchange for Yuichiro Mukae, a 28 year-old outfielder with a career .180 batting average.
In spite of the activity this year, trades happen much less frequently in NPB than MLB. Why is that? For me it starts with the impracticality of them. NPB has 12 teams split between two six-team leagues, which is akin to an MLB division. Of the nine trades this season, only two have been intra-league, and one was Chiba Lotte sending outfielder Kenji Sato to Nippon Ham for nothing in return (musho trade, a uniquely NPB phenomenon). Beyond that, teams rarely have their hands forced by impending free agency or unwieldy contracts — though Yomiuri did move Hideki Okajima to Nippon Ham for two younger players a year prior to his free agency a few years ago.
An additional reason is that players moving from one team to another is less ingrained culturally in Japan than it is in the US. It’s not unusual for a player to spend his entire career with the team that drafted him. And when Seibu traded Mizuta last year, his teammates saw him off with a ceremonial douage, despite his insignificant role on the team.
* Edit, August 1: There were actually 11 trades made in season. I missed one and mistakenly identified another as having happened during spring training. For a full list please see here.
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