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November 15, 2007

Nippon Prospectus

Potential Free Agent Imports

by Mike Plugh

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At the start of the 2007 season, I introduced a list of players possibly primed to make the jump from Japan to the majors. This list included both free agents and posting candidates that had been whispered about in the Japanese and American press. Free agency is a fairly straightforward process, where names are available for discussion well in advance of the seasons close. Posting, on the other hand, is highly subjective, and is essentially a guessing game. I will attempt to bring you some analysis in the piece centered on the free agent crop, and follow up at a future date with information regarding posting situations as they become more clear.

Looking at the free agents, I will organize the names according to tiers. Top-tier free agents are players who should command the attention of every MLB club, and who stand a good chance at contributing on an everyday basis with superior results. Think about Ichiro, Godzilla, Dice-K-first-name basis players. The second-tier free agents are players who will command limited but significant attention from major league clubs, and can play a valuable specialized role on a regular basis. Think Hideki Okajima, Kazuo Matsui, Akinori Iwamura, and Takashi Saito. Finally, tertiary-tiered free agents are players who might be on the radar of some clubs, but stand little chance to contribute on an everyday basis. Essentially, these players can play a role from the bench. Think So Taguchi.

This is not a complete list of free agents. I have chosen the names that should be on the MLB radar based on skill and the potential to stick with a major league club in some capacity. There may be other names worthy of discussion, but hey, this is my list. Also, to be eligible these players must opt to pursue free agency. They have the right, but many Japanese players traditionally stay with the home team out of loyalty. That is changing year by year, especially with the real possibility of a MLB payday out there, but it is noteworthy nonetheless. Surefire Hall of Famer Nobuhiko Matsunaka of SoftBank is technically a free agent, but he signed a seven-year extension at the start of this season and indicated he had no plans to move. A few years ago, he would have been an All-Star player in MLB, but he has declined significantly in the last two years.

The Top Tier

Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Chunichi Dragons
Height: 6'0" Weight: 187 Bats: Left Throws: Right Age: 30

In the original article, I wrote that Fukudome is tailor-made for the major leagues. Specifically, I said:

He has patience as well as power to the gaps, a recipe for success, especially if he chooses to play in a ballpark with a spacious outfield. I wouldn't look for more that 20 home runs from Fukudome, but 50 doubles is not out of the question. The selling point of Fukudome, when compared to his peers, is his habitual .400+ OBP. He won't beat himself at the plate often, and he'll make you make your pitch. If you miss, he hits it hard. His rifle arm in the outfield will also be a blessing for the lucky team to acquire his services as teams around the league will learn not to run on him very early on in the season. There is almost no downside to adding this player.

You can also read my more comprehensive analysis and bio on Fukudome. Since that article first appeared, Fukudome missed the final two months of the season with elbow surgery, which was performed in Los Angeles. His rehabilitation went extremely well, and he still appears poised for a trip to the majors in 2008. Fukudome has consulted with the agents at Octagon regarding his MLB prospects, and reports indicate that Octagon has received multiple inquiries. Chunichi, in the wake of their Japan Series victory, has offered Fukudome approximately $20 million over four years. He is likely to earn significantly more in the United States, effectively ending his tenure with the Nagoya-based Dragons.

Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Hiroshima Carp
Height: 6'1" Weight: 187 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 32

Kuroda signed a four-year deal with Hiroshima worth $10.6 million prior to the start of the 2007 season, forgoing his free agent rights to stay in the town he has grown to love over the years. However, the contract featured a clause that allowed Kuroda to declare free agency at any point during its duration, and Kuroda has decided to exercise his right after only one year. Joe Urbon, who represented Kazuhisa Ishii and Shingo Takatsu, is reported to be the frontrunner to represent Kuroda in his quest to pitch in the States.

He's not Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Kuroda a very strong power pitcher with a low to mid-90s fastball and a wicked forkball. In addition, he features a plus shuuto, something like a screwball, as well as an effective change. Even if he only pans out as a third or fourth starter in the majors, he will give you innings, work deep into games, and he should be fairly consistent start to start.

Hitoki Iwase, LHP, Chunichi Dragons
Height: 5'11" Weight: 180 Bats: Left Throws: Left Age: 33

Iwase is another reliever set to follow in the footsteps of Kaz Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito, and Hideki Okajima. The number of Japanese relief pitchers successfully making the jump is growing, and may be the most overlooked contribution to the American sport that the NPB has made. With the ongoing hunt for quality relief pitching in the majors, the Japanese contingent has done little to disappoint and much to delight organizations in both the American and National Leagues.

Iwase throws a low-90s fastball and a picture-perfect slider that is virtually unhittable for left-handed batters thanks to great deception and a sharp bite. The key to his success against batters from both sides of the plate is his varied release point, which alternates between three-quarters and almost sidearm. Right-handed batters are frustrated by the slider, which looks good until it comes riding in on their hands, jamming even the quickest bats in Japan. Iwase has consistently pitched in the neighborhood of 60 innings a season over his nine years in the NPB, earning the nickname "Iron Arm" in some circles. He can be a solid closer for most clubs, but would slot in beautifully as a setup man for any team with a quality pitcher already occupying that role.

[Ed. note: Iwase has re-signed with Chunichi, so you can scratch his name off of the list.]

Koji Uehara, RHP, Yomiuri Giants
Height: 6'1" Weight: 187 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 32

Uehara was listed in my initial report on free agents, but opened the season on the DL with hamstring issues. According to the structure of Japanese collective bargaining, a player only earns free agency after playing a set number of total days with a big league club. Uehara's injury cost him about a month of service time, so Yomiuri will not be releasing him to the open market. I include him here only to clear up any confusion that may exist about his status, and to prepare the conversation for 2008, when he will almost assuredly make the leap to MLB. Could that precipitate a "last chance" move to post Uehara? Maybe, which is the only reason his name is included here.

The Second Tier

Yasuhiko Yabuta, RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines
Height: 6'0" Weight: 187 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 34

Yabuta spent most of his career as a pedestrian starting pitcher for the Marines, occasionally bordering on awful. But then in 2004 the club switched him to relief, and a star was born. Over the last four seasons Yabuta has distinguished himself as a terrific late-inning pitcher with the ability to strike out a batter an inning while also working multiple innings per appearance. His fastball tops out in the mid-90s, but generally sits in the lower 90s. The out pitch that has made Yabuta successful is his excellent forkball, which is almost always located nicely. In the WBC, he became one of Sadaharu Oh's most trusted relief options, and delivered 4 1/3 innings of two-hit, one-run baseball, striking out five and walking none.

Masahide Kobayashi, RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines
Height: 6'0" Weight: 196 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 33

Kobayashi is the closer for Lotte and the final piece to "YFK", which stands for Yabuta, Fujita, and Kobayashi. You'll notice that I've skipped over Soichi Fujita, another WBC member, despite his free-agent status. Yabuta and Kobayashi are simply in a different league from their relief corps teammate. Kobayashi has been a dominating closer for the better part of seven and a half seasons, thanks in large part to a 98 mph fastball and powerful inside-out slider. In some respects, I like Yabuta's game a bit more, but the power profile of Kobayashi and the proven track record as a closer puts him in an excellent position to cash in with a desperate US team looking to plug in an established veteran presence at the end of close games.

Kazuhiro Wada, OF, Seibu Lions
Height: 6'0" Weight: 198 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 35

At 35 years old, Kaz Wada looks a lot more like your next-door neighbor than a big league ballplayer. He's mild tempered, nearly bald, and wears a perpetual five o'clock shadow. However, appearances can be deceiving, and in this case many pitchers have learned their lesson the hard way. Wada's age prohibits a lengthy commitment of any kind, and the limits on his ability are such that a small market club would be the best destination for his services as a starter. Ideally, Wada would be a veteran bat off the bench and a top-notch fourth outfielder, but he can still play well enough to warrant a starting gig in a corner spot somewhere. He sports a career .317/.389/.549 batting line. Wada also almost never strikes out, showing outstanding command of the strike zone. His power days are in decline, but he can handle a bat, play solid defense, and runs the bases well for a man with little speed. He's savvy, and worth a flyer.

Tertiary Free Agents

Yoshinobu Takahashi, OF, Yomiuri Giants
Height: 5'11" Weight: 192 Bats: Left Throws: Right Age: 32

Looking at the numbers, Takahashi isn't all that different than Kaz Wada. His career batting line is .303/.368/.525, and like Wada he doesn't strike out much. He's also three years younger. So why then is he not up in the second tier with Wada? Simply, because while Takahashi is a superior talent at the moment, he can't stay healthy. Wada strikes me as the type of player that fans would love-he's an underdog, and his looks and approach are appealing. Expectations would be lower, and thus he can only stand to win. In contrast, Takahashi is a good-looking guy, and he's played for the famous Yomiuri Giants. At 32, he should have several good years left to contribute, but when he's out with minor injuries and inconsistent in the majors, I could see fans-and his organization-turn on him. I also don't believe that he will leave the Giants for MLB.

Takahiro Arai, 3B, Hiroshima Carp
Height: 6'2" Weight: 210 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 30

Arai is a big guy for a Japanese infielder. At 30 years old, he's also one of the younger guys to enter free agency. At this point, he has to be rated this low because he has a lot of holes in his game, although I do think there is a place for Arai in the majors despite his less than ideal profile. His career batting line is .279/.337/.491, which could look positively horrendous after NPB to MLB conversions. However, his average in recent years is up in the .290s, and he's been able to keep his OBP in the .350 range.

He made full-time switch to third base in 2005 after splitting time there and at first for much of his career. After a shaky start, Arai has settled in nicely at the hot corner, and could play a Mike Lowell-caliber defense if all goes well. His ability to play both corner infield positions and the occasional flashes of power make him an intriguing option for a team looking to fill a corner spot cheaply. Arai made roughly a million dollars in 2007 after taking in between $250,000 and $750,000 a season prior to that; paying him double to serve as a role player seems hardly a stretch for most MLB clubs.

Daisuke Miura, RHP, Yokohama BayStars
Height: 6'0" Weight: 195 Bats: Right Throws: Right Age: 34

I'm not a fan of Miura. His 15 years with the Yokohama club have been good but not great, and there's nothing about him that would make me believe he could translate his performance to the majors. On the mound, he's an off-speed guy, relying mainly on a cutter, slow curve, and forkball to upset batters' timing in order to succeed. In Japan, that was successful for Miura, but I don't believe it has any long-term potential in the US. What might make Miura attractive to a major league club is his ability to avoid walking guys and the knowledge that you can pencil him in for 200 innings. The concern would be what type of 200 innings he'd give you, but a National League club looking to fill out the back end of their rotation might be willing to take a flyer on Miura in the hope that they can catch lightning in a bottle. He certainly has ability, but the translation of that ability across an ocean is a big-time question mark.

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Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He was the author of Matsuzaka Watch, but he's now blogging at Baseball Japan. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

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