By my count there are five Japanese pitchers who stand a good chance of jumping over to MLB for the 2008 season. I asked Aaron Shinsano and Jackson Broder of East Windup Chronicle to rank them for us and write a short description for each. Another knowledgable friend, Tak Iwanaga, also added some info below.
1. Hitoki Iwase – Iwase was on the hill for the tail end of last night’s perfect game, the Japan Series clinching victory for the Chunichi Dragons. The lefty closer has 40+ saves three years running with a career 1.91 ERA. Tops out at around 93 MPH, but has arguably the best slider in Japan. He’s starting to lose movement and velocity on his pitches, but is making up for it with very good control. A nice fit for the Okajima fetishist.
2. Kenshin Kawakami – Japan’s highest paid starter for the champion Chunichi Dragons (he made around $3MM) mixes a fastball, cutter, and curveball. His fastball runs around 87 and his curve is very slow. He’s known as a big game pitcher and always challenges hitters. He was 12-8 with a 3.55 ERA in 2007, but the K/BB ratio was an appealing 6.3 in 167 2/3 IP. He’s a HR prone strikeout pitcher. Kawakami has been healthy for the past four seasons.
3. Hiroki Kuroda – One number to remember here: 300, as in 300 feet to left and 300 feet to right. That’s the stadium Kuroda spent 10 years in, and still he managed to post a sub-2.00 ERA in 2006 and go 13-6. What could he do in Petco with 67 extra feet to left to play with? Tak says that at the least, he’s an innings eater.
4. Kazumi Saito – Before Dice-K made his way to Boston, it was Hanshin’s Saito, not Matsuzaka that was regarded as the top starter in Japanese baseball. He’s won the Sawamura award three times, and when healthy puts up absurd numbers and gaudy K totals. His 2006 line for the Fukuoka Hawks–18-5, 205 K’s in 201 IP, a 1.75 ERA–is the stuff of fictional video game characters. Saito employs a big time leg kick, mixing up a forkball, cutter, and nasty hammer in with his mid 90′s fastball.
Unfortunately for Saito and the many MLB suitors bandying his name about, he has been dealing with a chronic Prior-esque shoulder injury that could (and should) be a concern for squads ready to drop big coin on a Japanese starter. Saito’s numbers when healthy were good this year as he battled back from injury: 6-3, 2.74, 71 K’s in 72 1/3 IP, but are teams going to post a $30 million posting fee and $10 mil a year for a starter with shoulder issues? Boom or bust.
5. Masahide Kobayashi – Lost seven games and ERA rose nearly a point in 2007, but that shouldn’t deter teams from pursuing this 200+ save closer for Chiba Lotte. Throws from the stretch, and has that deceptive delivery that scouts seem to like these days. Has a great forkball that often tails in toward the batter. Not as good as Iwase or Koji Uehara, but might just be an upgrade over, say, The Farns. Tak adds that he was dropped to the "minors" at the end of the season and many feel his velocity and control are slipping.