In the 2014 offseason, many free agents changed teams, some even changed leagues. Hiroki Kuroda went back to Japan to pitch for his hometown team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, while the Yankees got an upgrade (when healthy) in Masahiro Tanaka on a seven-year, $155-million deal (with a $20-million posting fee that they spent to talk to him), which he can opt out of after this season.
There was a second pitcher who was almost as good as Tanaka, who had worse stuff but excellent command. He also had some injury concerns after his 2011 injury where he missed a few starts, and in 2012 where only pitched nine starts, albeit with 63 1/3 IP in those starts though. Heading into the 2014 offseason, he had two excellent seasons, with ERAs of around 2 in 2013 and 2014, pitching 223 1/3 IP, with 200 strikeouts and 58 walks allowed, then 191 IP with 199 K and only 42 BB respectively in those seasons. He had a 1.98 ERA in those 191 innings in 2014, and a 2.01 ERA in 2013, generating interest from big-league teams and making an appearance in Bradley Woodrum’s article as a pitcher of note that might come over. He ultimately re-signed with the Orix Buffaloes on a four-year deal.
The injury bug bit him again in 2015 as he pitched in 16 starts, throwing 93 IP, and he had a lower strikeout rate than he had in 2013 and 2014 (7.6 K/9) with an ERA of 3.19. He pitched in 2016 and had a mostly healthy season, save for a declining strikeout rate (6.9 K/9) and an increased walk rate (3.3 BB/9), with an ERA of 3.83 in 162 IP. This year his strikeouts (5.7 K/9) and walks (3.0 BB/9) have stayed bad, with a slightly better 3.57 ERA in 116 IP.
What has caused this drastic downturn in performance? It seems that some of his downturn is because he’s getting older, but that doesn’t explain his increased walk rate or his severe decrease in strikeouts. Most of this is likely due to injuries he sustained in the 2015 season. And given that he hasn’t gotten better, it seems as if he’s been pitching despite an injury which has been sapping his effectiveness. He went from being as good as Alex Cobb was in 2014 (considering the thought of the average active hitter in Japan being slightly better than AAA quality) to performing like Ervin Santana this year.
He was a great pitcher with some downside, like Jered Weaver was, but Kaneko hasn’t declined that far yet. Weaver is too bad to even be on an MLB team until he gets medical help to fix his hip and/or shoulder. Weaver is one of the other pitchers who had declined that quickly. So far, he hasn’t rebounded and has continued to get worse, worse than he was last year when he was the second-worst pitcher qualified for the ERA title. It appears that Weaver is virtually unfixable. I think that Kaneko’s issues can be fixed, though, and if they are fixed, he could be an interesting buy-low opportunity.
After the 2014 season, if I were Dayton Moore (armchair GM ideas away), I would’ve signed him to a three-year, $30-million deal with lots of incentives, which could’ve raised the value to $51 million if all were reached. And I think he would’ve done quite well; we might not have this article at all. I must digress, as what-ifs are all around us. (Look at Yordano Ventura, who died far too young with so much untapped potential left.)
He looks like a potential project for the Pirates if he can show signs of improvement in his performance and peripheral stats. The Pirates and Ray Searage could definitely turn Kaneko into something of value, like they did with A.J. Burnett, Edinson Volquez, JA Happ, Ivan Nova, Juan Nicasio, Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and more. There’s a good amount of upside in trying for this — some prospects that can help the team in the future.
Here is a link to his player page so you can see it for yourself and make your own conclusions about him, and what he can do to remedy himself.
I don’t own any stats used; all stats are from either FanGraphs or the NPB website linked above.