Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball is targeting a June 19 Opening Day. As is the case with the Korea Baseball Organization, the league has plenty of recognizable names for MLB fans to follow as we await the return of baseball in North America. NPB is larger than the KBO (12 teams vs. 10) and has slightly lesser restrictions on foreign players. As such, I split the “names to watch” rundown into two posts — this one covering the Japan Central League and a prior post on the Japan Pacific League.
Yomiuri Giants (77-64-2 record in 2019):
- Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP: Perhaps the most well-known player on this list, Iwakuma was a rock in the Mariners’ rotation from 2012-16 before shoulder injuries interrupted a very strong MLB run. He signed with NPB’s Giants in the 2018-19 offseason but was only able to throw two minor league innings last year. Now 39, he’ll take another shot at a return in 2020.
- Gerardo Parra, OF: The man who brought “Baby Shark” to Nationals Park and celebrated a World Series win last October took an early free-agent deal with the Giants back on Nov. 20. The 33-year-old batted .250/.300/.447 with the Nats last year.
- Rubby De La Rosa, RHP: Once considered to be among the game’s top pitching prospects, the now 31-year-old De La Rosa had a decent run with the Red Sox and D-backs from 2014-17 before injuries derailed his career. He made his NPB debut with the Giants last year, pitching to a 2.25 ERA with a 32-to-5 K/BB ratio in 24 innings.
- Angel Sanchez, RHP: Pirates fans are excused if they don’t remember Sanchez’s brief 12-inning cup of coffee from the 2017 season. Sanchez, now 30, had a very promising 2015 between Double-A and Triple-A before his 2016 season was lost to Tommy John surgery. He’s spent the past two years with the KBO’s SK Wyverns, including an impressive 2.62 ERA with 8.1 K/9 against 2.3 BB/9 in 165 innings in 2019.
- Thyago Vieira, RHP: The 26-year-old Vieira was an intriguing prospect with the Mariners and White Sox due to his huge fastball velocity, but he was hit hard in 25 2/3 MLB frames and in the upper minors. This will be his first season in Japan.
Yokohama DeNA BayStars (71-69-3):
- Jose Lopez, 1B: Yes — it’s that Jose Lopez. An All-Star second baseman with the Mariners way back in 2006, Lopez is now 36 years old and a seven-year veteran in NPB. In two seasons with the Giants and five with the BayStars, he’s a .276/.317/.500 hitter with 186 home runs.
- Spencer Patton, RHP: The 32-year-old hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2016 and has just a 6.26 ERA in 54 frames between the Rangers and Cubs. But Patton has made a name for himself with the BayStars, for whom he pitched to a combined 2.64 ERA in 116 innings from 2017-18. He had a down year in ’19 and will be looking for better health and better results in 2020.
- Edwin Escobar, LHP: Still just 28, Escobar hasn’t pitched in the Majors since a 2016 cameo with the D-backs. That’s due largely to the success he’s found in Japan, where he’s logged a 3.36 ERA with 9.5 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 in three seasons out of the BayStars’ bullpen.
- Tyler Austin, OF: Austin has shown plenty of power in parts of four MLB seasons, but his strikeouts have limited him to a .219/.292/.451 overall batting line. The former Yankees prospect will be suiting up for the first time in NPB this season.
- Neftali Soto, INF/OF: The 31-year-old Soto saw all of 44 MLB plate appearances with the Reds in 2013-14, but he’s hit like a star in Japan. In two seasons with the Yokohama club, he’s batted .288/.355/.594 with 84 home runs inn 1043 plate appearances. He’ll be a free agent next year and could potentially draw some MLB interest.
Hanshin Tigers (69-68-6):
- Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP: The now 39-year-old Fujikawa never took off after signing with the Cubs for the 2013 season. He returned to NPB in 2016 and has regained his status as a high-end reliever with his original club, the Tigers. Fujikawa whiffed 83 hitters and posted a 1.77 ERA in 56 innings last year.
- Kosuke Fukudome, OF: Another former Cub, Fukudome is still chugging along at 43 years old. He hit .256/.347/.394 in 403 plate appearances with the Tigers last season — his 16th in NPB.
- Justin Bour, 1B/DH: Bour blasted 92 home runs in a six-year run with the Marlins, Phillies and Angels, but he never hit much upon leaving Miami. His power should play well in his NPB debut this year, and hopefully his “Bourtobello Crushroom” nickname catches on there (even though Bour told Sports Illustrated he’s never actually been called by that nickname, it still appears on his Baseball-Reference page).
- Jon Edwards, RHP: Edwards, 32, has seen MLB time with the Rangers, Indians and Padres but never cemented himself as a steady contributor. He boasts a 3.08 ERA and 12.4 K/9 in parts of four Triple-A seasons, however. This will be his NPB debut.
- Onelki Garcia, RHP: Garcia, 30, has just 7 1/3 MLB innings to his name and will return to the Tigers for a second season after struggling to a 4.69 ERA in 103 2/3 frames last year. He did post a strong 2.99 mark with the Chunichi Dragons in 2018.
- Jefry Marte, 1B/3B: Marte never found his stride in parts of four seasons with the Tigers or Angels from 2015-18, but he posted a .284/.381/.444 slash in his debut effort with Hanshin last season.
- Jerry Sands, OF: The 32-year-old Sands had a journeyman career in the U.S. but hit at star levels in the Korea Baseball Organization over the past two seasons: .306/.391/.574. He signed with Hanshin this winter and will be making his NPB debut.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp (70-70-3):
- Kris Johnson, LHP: Johnson, 35, barely got a look with the Pirates or Twins, but he’s been one of Japan’s best pitchers over the past half decade. In five seasons, all with the Carp, he has a combined 2.54 ERA with averages of seven strikeouts and three walks per nine innings.
- DJ Johnson, RHP: This will be the first NPB season for Johnson, who posted a 4.88 ERA in 31 2/3 innings with the Rockies over the past couple of seasons. As an undrafted player who has also spent time on the indie circuit, the 30-year-old Johnson is cultivating quite the unique baseball career.
- Tayler Scott, RHP: The second South African-born player to make it to the big leagues — Gift Ngoepe was the first — Scott was hit hard in 16 1/3 frames between the Mariners and Orioles last year. However, the 28-year-old also tossed 16 frames with just one run allowed and a 21-to-3 K/BB ratio with the Orioles’ Triple-A club in ’19.
- Jose Pirela, OF: Pirela hit well in a half season with the Padres back in 2017, but he’s struggled in the Majors outside that run. He was never able to win the second base gig in San Diego and was lost in the shuffle of their crowded outfield mix. Pirela brings a career .257/.308/.392 MLB slash to his debut season in Japan, but he’s a .311/.362/.493 hitter in Triple-A.
Chunichi Dragons (68-73-2):
- Dayan Viciedo, 1B: White Sox fans surely remember “The Tank” from his 2010-14 stretch with the South Siders, but he never blossomed into the star they hoped he could. Vicideo hit .254/.298/.424 in just shy of 1800 MLB plate appearances, but he’s a .303/.372/.502 hitter in four seasons as a Dragon.
- Moises Sierra, OF: Speaking of former White Sox outfielders, Sierra’s run with the ChiSox was much more brief than that of Viciedo. He played 83 games there and 207 total in the big leagues from 2012-18, hitting .235/.287/.362 in the process. Sierra posted outrageous numbers in the Mexican League last year (.355/.464/.572) and will make his NPB debut in 2020.
- Enny Romero, LHP: Romero pitched quite well for the 2017 Nats but has otherwise struggled in the Majors. He spent most of last season in the Dragons’ rotation, pitching to a 4.26 ERA through 116 1/3 frames.
- Zoilo Almonte, OF: The 30-year-old Almonte never caught on with the Yankees despite a long look in their farm system, but he’s broken out with the Chunichi club in NPB. In two prior seasons, Almonte is a .323/.372/.491 hitter.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows (59-82-2):
- Nori Aoki, OF: Aoki may be 38 years old, but he’s still a productive hitter. In 565 plate appearances with the Swallows in 2019, he batted .297/.385/.442 with 16 long balls. That’s more power than he showed in MLB, but his six-year run in the Majors was still quite solid: .285/.350/.387, 10.5 WAR.
- Alcides Escobar, SS: Aoki’s former Royals teammate will join him for his debut NPB campaign once play resumes in two weeks. The 33-year-old Escobar’s bat tailed off dramatically in his final big league seasons, but he’s a former All-Star, Gold Glove winner and World Series champion.
- Gabriel Ynoa, RHP: A longtime Mets farmhand, the 27-year-old Ynoa never found much success in the Majors (5.39 ERA in 163 2/3 innings). Ynoa soaked up 110 innings for a disastrous Orioles pitching staff in 2019, but he’ll hope to make more of an impact in his NPB debut.
- Matt Koch, RHP: Koch, 29, never found his footing in four years with the D-backs or even in Triple-A, but he threw well up through the Double-A level in his career.
- Scott McGough, RHP: The 30-year-old McGough has just 6 2/3 innings in the Majors, all with the 2015 Marlins, but he was sharp for Yakult in 2019, pitching to a 3.15 ERA with nearly a strikeout per frame in 68 2/3 innings of relief.
- Albert Suarez, RHP: Once a Rule 5 pick by the Giants, Suarez also saw some time with the Yakult club last season, logging a 1.54 ERA in 17 2/3 frames. He also spent time with their minor league club, but he’ll hope to establish himself further in 2020.
- Ryota Igarashi, RHP: The 41-year-old Igarashi’s time with the Mets, Yankees and Blue Jays in 2010-12 was ugly, but he’s been a consistently strong bullpen presence in a whopping 17 NPB seasons. Last year’s 2.98 ERA in 42 1/3 frames was a near-match with his 2.93 career mark, although his 5.1 BB/9 mark was a bit of a red flag.