It’s always fun to keep an eye on familiar players who’ve taken their talents across the pond. Now that the 2019 season is in the books, it seemed an opportune time to check in. Numerous former big leaguers and others of note are playing abroad, many of them thriving in Asia’s top leagues.
We’ve seen foreign stints help spur big league revivals from quite a few players. Eric Thames, Miles Mikolas, and Chris Martin are among those that played significant roles in the 2019 MLB campaign. Whether any of the players covered below will do so remains to be seen, but there’s certainly a path.
We started by looking at position players and pitchers in the KBO, the top league in South Korea. Now we’re headed to Japan to examine Nippon Professional Baseball, generally considered the highest-grade league outside of North America. Remember, teams in these leagues face limits on the number of non-native players they can carry on a roster. That creates a lot of pressure to secure big production from those roster spots, which often spurs mid-season change.
Here’s a 2019 wrap on some interesting NPB hitters …
- Infielder Brandon Laird was never able to carve out a steady MLB job, but has found a home in NPB. This year, he slashed a healthy .248/.333/.483 with 32 dingers in 553 plate appearances for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He was joined mid-season by Leonys Martin, who found some NPB success of his own after being cut loose by Indians. Over 228 plate appearances, Martin slashed .232/.342/.495 with 14 home runs. The good vibes were not there for former Twins slugger Kennys Vargas, who turned in an oddball .179/.324/.274 slash line with one home run and 16 walks through 102 plate appearances at NPB’s top level.
- Appearing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, former Padres and Angels outfielder Jabari Blash finally turned his talent into production at a top level of play. In 527 trips to the plate, he slashed .261/.397/.540 with 33 homers. The 30-year-old could at some point be a candidate to attempt a MLB return. Teammate Zelous Wheeler, briefly of the Yankees, batted .243/.320/.418 with 19 home runs. That’s a fair bit shy of Wheeler’s first four seasons with the Golden Eagles, during which time he delivered a collective OPS north of .800.
- Believe it or not, another short-lived Yankee whose name begins with Z also contributed to a NPB club. Zoilo Almonte only received 174 plate appearances at the top league level for the Chunichi Dragons, but slashed a robust .329/.362/.506 in that time. The Dragons also get nice output from Dayan Viciedo, the 30-year-old former White Sox outfielder, who went for a .315/.374/.496 slash in 594 plate appearances. Viciedo has uncovered previously absent on-base ability in Japan and could perhaps be of interest to big league clubs once his current deal expires in 2021, though he’ll be 32 at that point.
- Former Mariners outfielder Stefen Romero appeared again with the ORIX Buffaloes. He bounced back from a down 2018 to post 331 plate appearances of .305/.363/.539 hitting and slugged 18 homers. Romero never showed much of a spark in brief MLB action but was a productive hitter coming up through the minor-league ranks. He’ll soon turn 31 years of age. Otherwise, Chris Marrero couldn’t capitalize on his chances with the Buffaloes, managing only a .211/.256/.317 output over 133 plate appearances. Former Tigers outfielder Steven Moya wasn’t much better after an early-season trade to ORIX from the Chunichi Dragons, with a .244/.278/.397 slash in 255 trips to the dish.
- Wladimir Balentien made his annual assault on NPB hurlers, launching 33 home runs in 468 plate appearances and turning in a hefty .280/.363/.554 overall output. The Curacaoan slugger seems content with the Yakult Swallows, having been with them for nine years. Despite his perennial dominance — Balentien is a career .273/.378/.558 hitter with 288 home runs in Japan — he’s now 35 years of age, so it seems unlikely he’ll seek a move back stateside. Likewise, Nori Aoki is likely settled back in his native land after wrapping up a generally successful big league tenure. But it’s worth noting that he’s still a capable performer at 37 years of age, having just slashed .297/.385/.442 in 565 plate appearances for the Swallows.
- Kosuke Fukudome had a similar career arc to that of Aoki, but his production slipped to .256/.347/.397 this season — his age-42 campaign and seventh with the Hanshin Tigers since returning to Japan. The Tigers received better results out of Jefry Marte, formerly of the Tigers and Angels. Marte put up a nice .284/.381/.444 batting line in 412 plate appearances. Other notable names had less of an impact: Yangervis Solarte had a forgettable 20-game stint, while Efren Navarro struggled through 15 games with the organization’s main club.
- After wrapping up a combustible MLB tenure, former Dodgers infielder Alex Guerrero has settled in with the Yomiuri Giants. He hit .237/.337/.526 with 21 dingers in 333 plate appearances this year and just hit a big postseason home run. Fellow former NL West infielder Christian Villanueva struggled with Japan’s Giants, managing only a .223/.325/.386 slash over 235 plate appearances.
- It has been quite a while since we’ve seen Jose Lopez stateside (2012), but he is still going in Japan. The Yokohama DeNA BayStars slugger launched 31 long balls and slashed .241/.295/.461 this year, a step back from his recent output.
- Lopez’s teammate, Neftali Soto, was once a prospect in the Reds organization but has found a home with the BayStars. In his second season with them, the infielder slashed .269/.348/.554 with 43 long balls — his second straight 40-homer campaign. One-time Cubs farmhand Xavier Batista has emerged with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. In the just-completed season, he turned in 423 plate appearances with 26 home runs, slashing a sturdy .269/.350/.513 on the season. Former Braves prospect Ernesto Mejia has carved out a career in Japan, but he followed a tepid 2018 showing with a subpar .211/.286/.422 effort in 147 plate appearances with the Saitama Seibu Lions.
- From the what might’ve been department, a pair of Cuban sluggers that never played in affiliated ball have been monsters for the Fukuoka SoftBank Haws. Alfredo Despaigne knocked 36 dingers and slashed .259/.355/.520 over 519 plate appearances, while Yurisbel Gracial turned in an eye-opening performance with 410 plate appearances of .319/.365/.595 hitting and 28 homers.
- While he received at least some MLB consideration when posted by his Taiwanese club, and landed with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters for a reasonably significant commitment, outfielder Wang Po-Jung had a forgettable first season in Japan. The 26-year-old slashed just .255/.321/.327 in 355 plate appearances.