Right-hander Hideaki Wakui’s contract with the Chiba Lotte Marines expires at season’s end, and the veteran righty could pursue his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues this offseason, per a report from the Japan Times. Wakui has spent 13 seasons pitching in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and is 31 years old (32 next June), meaning he’d easily meet both the age and experience requirements to be exempt from international bonus pools.
Wakui isn’t coming off his best season, having tossed 158 innings with a 3.99 ERA, 6.6 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9, but he has a lengthy track record of success and won NPB’s Sawamura Award (Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award) back in 2009. That season, he posted a minuscule 2.30 ERA with a 199-to-76 K/BB ratio in 211 2/3 frames. That was quite some time ago — Wakui was just 23 then — but he posted a 3.01 ERA in 188 2/3 frames as recently as 2016 and has a lifetime 3.45 ERA with 6.6 K/9 against 2.7 BB/9 in 2061 professional innings in NPB.
While it’s not yet known whether Wakui has made a firm decision, one club exec from Japan tells the Times: “We’ve known how he has always felt (about wanting to play in the majors). He’s an indispensable player to the team but he does have the right (to declare free agency) and it is his dream.”
Wakui is the latest in a growing class of free-agent arms to at least monitor as they weigh a possible run at international free agency. Ace/slugger Shohei Otani rightly draws the majority of the headlines, but closer Yoshihisa Hirano and former big leaguer starter Miles Mikolas have also had plenty of success in NPB and could well pursue MLB contracts this offseason.