Masahide Kobayashi Rumors
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.
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.
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.