Japanese Players In MLB Rumors

Fukudome, Kuroda, Kobayashi Rumors

Here’s a link chock full of rumors involving Japanese ballplayers who might come over to MLB.  It’s also loaded with links most of you will not be able to read.

  • Masahide Kobayashi, the 33 year-old righthanded closer, will be represented by SFX.  Fellow free agents Kerry Wood and Jorge Julio are also using that agency, as far as I can tell.
  • Hiroki Kuroda is expected to fill for free agency on Monday.  Since there’s no posting fee involved, some have speculated his salary could exceed Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s.  Matsuzaka will earn an average of $8.66MM per season during his six-year deal, and he also has a full no-trade clause.  The idea of Kuroda earning around $10MM per year jives with earlier remarks from Jason Churchill of Prospect Insider.
  • The deadline to fill for free agency in Japan is November 12th.  Kosuke Fukudome is still undecided about whether to jump over to MLB.  He’ll meet with his current team, the Chunichi Dragons, on Monday.  They’re expected to make him an offer.  The Hanshin Tigers may also make a play at $20MM over four years, using the money they received from posting Kei Igawa.
  • Some reports indicate that the Yankees may be interested in acquiring Kaz Matsui to play second base if they move Robinson Cano to third.  Doesn’t seem likely.   

Special thanks to Tak Iwanaga for translating.

Ranking Japanese Pitchers

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.

Giants Interested In Kosuke Fukudome

According to John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Giants are "seriously interested" in Kosuke Fukudome.  The Padres will be in on him as well.  Shea picked up this chatter from Japanese media at the World Series.

McCovey Chronicles is cautiously intrigued, but only around a 3/24 level.  Mike Plugh has speculated that Fukudome could cost $12-15MM over three or four years, but that was written in May.  Fukudome saw his power production decline and finished the year with elbow surgery.  Still, .294/.443/.520 is a great baseline even if it translates to 15 HR power.

This isn’t the first time the Giants have been linked to Fukudome.  Susan Slusser mentioned the possibility in early September.  Other teams said to be in the mix: the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, White Sox, and Padres.  I’m sure that list will continue to grow.  Perhaps the Yanks will exit the picture since they plan to exercise Bobby Abreu‘s option.

Top 3 Japanese Free Agents

I asked JapanBall‘s Bob Bavasi for his thoughts on the Top 3 Japanese Free Agents who may come over to MLB this winter.  He kindly obliged, providing a couple of paragraphs on each.  His summaries are below.

1. Kosuke Fukudome, Dragons.  Left-handed hitting outfielder from the Dragons in Nagoya.  Can play any outfield position, but probably best in right.  A solid, no-nonsense type player, with a terrific glove and sound arm, he’s the best Japanese position player in either league.  Absolutely no secret about this guy. 

2. Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Hiroshima Carp.  This fellow is probably a number three or four starter in the big leagues.   Was 12-8 this season in 26 starts with a 3.56 ERA.  A free agent last year, he decided to stay in Japan by signing a four-year deal with the Carp, but with a clause therein that allows him to test the waters when he so desires.  He’s probably going to do so now.  The Carp just announced that his arm was okay after a medical exam in the United States.  If you’re looking for more info on Kuroda, check out this post at East Windup Chronicle.

3. Masahide Kobayashi, RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines.  This closer was the number one draft pick by the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1999.  He may be the best available reliever on the free agent market, though he has not made the sort of overtures about wanting to leave Japan as the other two.  During the recent playoffs in Japan, his manager, Bobby Valentine, noted that Kobayashi keeps "looking better every time out.”  True enough, and a reason I like him.

Koji Uehara Not Eligible For Free Agency

We’ve spilled a decent amount of Internet ink on righty pitcher Koji Uehara.  He’s a control pitcher and longtime starter who was used in relief by the Yomiuri Giants this season (perhaps to spite him). 

Now comes word that the hamstring injury that knocked him out for the season’s first month caused him to fall just short of the service time needed for free agent eligibility.  Unless the Giants post him (unlikely), he’s off the radar for MLB teams this winter.  (Thanks to Mike Plugh of Uehara Watch for the info).  Fortunately for MLB fans, Kosuke Fukudome did maintain eligibility despite an injury late in the year. 

Japanese Players Declare For Free Agency

JapanBall.com notes that 68 Japanese players are eligible for free agency this year, meaning they are free to jump over to MLB if they choose.

There are familiar names like Kosuke Fukudome and Hiroki Kuroda, as well as some others we’ve yet to discuss here at MLBTR.

Ted Berg On Japanese Pitchers

SNY’s Ted Berg has an informative blog post about Japanese pitchers who may come over to MLB for the 2008 season (found via MetsBlog).  Berg discusses the situations of Koji Uehara, Hiroki Kuroda, Kenshin Kawakami, Hitoki Iwase, Masahide Kobayashi, and Kazumi Saito.

So far only Uehara and Kuroda have been discussed here at MLBTR.  I’m planning to dig up some info on Iwase, but the other three guys are new to me.

Japanese position players to have on the radar include outfielder Kosuke Fukudome and shortstop Tomohiro Nioka.

Tomohiro Nioka Could Come To MLB

Tomohiro Nioka is a 31 year-old shortstop for the Yomiuri Giants of Japan.  He’s starting to generate a little buzz as a possible MLB crossover this winter, especially given the weak free agent shortstop market.

Nioka will be a free agent this winter (no posting fee required).  I haven’t seen any recent quotes indicating that he wants to come over here, but he did say "I’d most definitely consider playing in the Major Leagues" back in 2003.

The Daily Herald’s Scot Gregor notes that the White Sox could opt to pursue Nioka over Juan Uribe.  The Sox have had success in the past with the Tadahito Iguchi and Shingo Takatsu signings.  Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star expects Nioka to come over, but doesn’t see the Jays signing him.

Nioka hit .295/.346/.457 with 20 HR in 508 ABs this year.  You can find his earlier numbers here.  I talked to one Japanese fan who considers Nioka a poor man’s Akinori Iwamura.  He ranks Nioka’s defense as good but not great.

It seems likely that Nioka’s teammate, pitcher Koji Uehara, will attempt the jump to MLB this year.  Perhaps Nioka will follow suit and plug a hole for the White Sox, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Giants, or Cardinals.

Saito Hopes To Pitch In 2008

According to Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times, Takashi Saito wants to pitch a third season for the Dodgers in 2008.  With a 1.73 ERA in 135 career innings, Saito’s finishing up perhaps the best-ever two-season run by a Japanese pitcher.  Some folks are comparing him to Dennis Eckersley, though Saito doesn’t know who that is (hat tip to East Windup Chronicle).

Hernandez questions how Saito would react if another team were to offer him more money.  However, I don’t think that’s an issue here.  As he was last year, Saito is tied to the Dodgers by his service time.  He’s not a free agent this winter.

The massive success of Saito, Hideki Ojakima, and others can only lead to an increase in demand for Japanese relievers – especially given the low salaries.  Take free agent Koji UeharaMike Plugh told me there’s no reason for MLB teams to consider him as a reliever even though he’s closed for all of 2007.  However, a recent Yahoo Japan article quotes an NL scout who thinks he would have more success in the pen.

Iguchi Could Return To Japan

According to Yahoo Japan, the Yomiuri Giants are looking into signing free agent second baseman Tadahito Iguchi this winter.  However, my translator Tak notes that Iguchi is unlikely to return to Japan if MLB teams show interest in him.

Overall this season, the 32 year-old Iguchi is hitting .269/.349/.402 in 458 ABs.  He’s been better since jumping to the NL in a trade to Philadelphia: .313/.370/.450 in 131 ABs.

Iguchi is joined by Luis Castillo, Damion Easley, Marcus Giles, Mark Loretta, Kaz Matsui, and Jose Valentin in the free agent second baseman class.  He might be the best option at the position and could take a three-year, $12MM type deal comparable to Mark DeRosa‘s.