Trades in Japan

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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Patrick Newman is a veteran enthusiast of Japanese baseball who happens to write about it at npbtracker.com, and on Twitter @npbtracker.


15 Responses to “Trades in Japan”

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  1. Danya says:

    The trade-for-nothing is not necessarily an exclusively NPB phenomenon. I remember when the expansion Cleveland Browns came into existence the 49ers traded Ty Detmer and maybe one or two other players to them for nothing.

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    • gnomez says:

      MLB, too. I remember when the Cardinals traded Anthony Reyes and Chris Perez to the Indians for nothing.

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      • Chris says:

        Well the Cardinals got Luis Perdomo for Anthony Reyes, who was later picked in the Rule 5 draft by the Giants and then claimed by the Padres on waivers. I would say that is nothing. But to be fair, Reyes had no future with the club anyways.

        But they did get Mark DeRosa for Chris Perez and Jess Todd. I would consider that as something.

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  2. Derek says:

    I was in Tokyo in late June/early July and was able to catch a Yomiuri-Hanshin game. This is a bit off topic, but the crowds were wild. They were chanting and singing, there were guys waving enormous flags, and there were people coordinating what the Hanshin or Yomiuri supporters would do (perhaps you could call them cheer leaders?). I couldn’t read the scoreboard because it was in Japanese, but at one point a white guy came up and the crowd started chanting: Mado, clap, clap, clap. Mado, clap, clap, clap. It took me a while but it was none other than Dave Cameron approved Matt Murton! The Hanshin crowd also sang a pretty elaborate song when Kenji Johjima would bat. I guess the lack of player movement really helps drive this crowd culture, because everyone in the stadium, from little kids to old ladies, was really tuned into the players and the game. It was really a very different and exciting atmosphere for an American baseball fan to be in.

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  3. Jim says:

    What’s the rationale behind musho trade? Roster space? Salary dump? Or something less concrete?

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    • It’s case to case. In this most recent one, Nippon Ham had some outfield injuries, and this kid Sato was languishing at the bottom of Lotte’s farm team roster and getting very little playing time. He only got 10 at bats with Nippon Ham’s top team, but is playing regularly with the farm team and doing well so far. Plus he’s only 21 so there’s some upside remaining. For Lotte he was obviously expendable since he wasn’t getting playing time even on the farm team, and did open up a roster spot.

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  4. Gio says:

    A futility infielder sounds like a couple players for the Seattle Mariners.

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  5. Chair says:

    Needs………proof…..read….

    Hundreds of thousands (of) MLB fans stay glued (to) MLB trade rumors

    Don’t know if you meant futility infielder or utility, kinda funny if you were going for the first.

    Otherwise it sounds to me like Japanese baseball is still a few decades behind as far as player’s rights, competitiveness, etc.

    One day i want to see an MLB NPB trade. :)

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    • Thanks. I fixed the opening sentence (which is always the last one I write, and I guess I was tired last night). “Futility infielder” was intentional, Mizuta is awful.

      NPB Player-Team relations are skewed in favor of the teams. Free agency is hard to attain in Japan, and even once attained, there are deterrents that make it hard to move to other NPB teams. Things are changing little by little though.

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  6. Chair says:

    A question. It seems like players are expected to show a certain level of loyalty to the team they are drafted by, or at least the rules of their contracts force them to be so. Are teams likewise extremely loyal to their players? Have there been any scandal like events where a team displaces a long time player with a rookie etc? How do you perceive retirement in NPB, do players stick around long after their skills have lessened or do they feel like Lance Berkman who claims he will be near retirement the as soon as he can not perform the way he has near his peak? No need to answer all of these questions individually, just curious if any of them bring anything interesting or different about NPB to mind.

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    • >> Are teams likewise extremely loyal to their players?

      I would say they are more loyal than MLB teams. There are certainly more cases of players spending their entire careers with one team, and then going on to coach or manage the team.

      >> Have there been any scandal like events where a team displaces a long time player with a rookie etc?

      Yes. This happens. A lot of times the team will try to move the veteran player into a bench role, or into retirement and a coaching role.

      >> How do you perceive retirement in NPB, do players stick around long after their skills have lessened or do they feel like Lance Berkman who claims he will be near retirement the as soon as he can not perform the way he has near his peak?

      There is some of each. Some guys hang around in reserve roles until they have nothing left, others retire around 35-36 before their skills have totally vanished. Tsuyoshi Shinjo retired around 35, for example.

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