In addition to the dozens of veteran free agents still looking for new homes this offseason, there are currently three decorated players from the Nippon Professional Baseball ranks who are currently available to stateside clubs via the MLB posting system. First baseman Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, and second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi have already been posted this winter; a fourth player, outfielder Shogo Akiyama, is an international free agent. While none of these players promise, like countrymen Shohei Ohtani or Yu Darvish before them, to be franchise building blocks, each offers unique value to potential American suitors.
Looking for a lefty bat with pop? Tsutsugo is your man. Since 2014, the 6’0 slugger has blasted an average of 30.83 home runs per season while playing for the Yokohama BayStars, peaking with totals of 44 and 38 round-trippers in 2016 and 2018, respectively. The now-28-year-old couples that raw power with the patient approach modern clubs covet, recording a 15.1 percent walk rate over the last four seasons, while also doing a generally acceptable job of limiting strikeouts.
As for his defense? Well, Jason Coskrey of Baseball America recently said he’s “not a terrible fielder by any means, but he’s not a great one either”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a player who has shuttled between first, third, and left field in a ten-year Nipponese career. Clubs may be wary of committing multiple years, a hefty guarantee, and a posting fee (more on that in a moment) for a player who may end up suited for DH duties.
How about teams in search of a veteran starting pitcher to slot into their rotation’s back end? 32-year-old righty Shun Yamaguchi throws a fastball that sits around 90 mph, with a forkball representing his primary breaking pitch. That surely doesn’t sound like the most glamorous mix of attributes, but what Yamaguchi can offer is a wealth of experience and a good deal of forward momentum. Despite having pitched over 1000 innings stretching between the bullpen and the rotation in an NPB career dating back to 2006, Yamaguchi may have found another gear in 2019.
In addition to posting a 2.91 ERA over 26 starts, his 10.0 K/9 and 3.13 K/BB ratios last season marked personal bests as a starter. This offseason has already been slightly unpredictable when it comes to starting pitching, with Jake Odorizzi foregoing the open market and an inconsistent Kyle Gibson garnering a three-year, $30MM deal from the Rangers. For teams leery of even approaching the market’s top trifecta of starting arms, Yamaguchi, though likely not a world-beater, could represent an appealing value play.
Then there’s the slick-fielding Ryosuke Kikuchi. For teams in need of second base help and defensive improvement in the infield–and there are a few teams who fit within that category–Kikuchi may be a perfect match. The 29-year-old has won every Golden Glove at the keystone in the NPB’s Central League since 2013. While his defensive excellence seems to be universally upheld, there are some persistent questions as to how the bat will travel. Since debuting with the Hiroshima Carp in 2012, the righty swinger has logged a cumulative .271/.315/.391 line across a rather healthy sample of 4695 plate appearances.
Kikuchi’s .261/.313/.406 slash from last year would look acceptable in the majors from a defensively adept second baseman, but such production in the offensively friendly Japanese ranks may give some MLB front offices reason to pause; those that remember the trials of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Munenori Kawasaki, two other former Golden Glove NPB infielders who proved unable to adapt to MLB pitching, may simply stay away altogether.
Big league teams interested in any of these players will have to pay their parent clubs posting fees proportional to the size of the player’s contract: 20 percent of the first $25MM guaranteed; 17.5 percent of the next $25MM, plus 15 percent of every dollar over $50MM. That release fee is separate from the guarantee itself (for instance, a $25MM guarantee for one of these players would result in an additional $5MM posting fee, bringing the MLB club’s total expense to $30MM).
Performance incentives and contract options will trigger a supplemental 15 percent release fee once unlocked. For a minor league deal, an MLB club will be required to give a parent club 25 percent of the player’s signing bonus, and the player’s MLB salary will be subject to a supplemental posting fee if he is added to the club’s 25-man roster.
Shogo Akiyama probably represents the most well-rounded player expected to make the leap this offseason, and he was the only expected NPB import from this offseason to land within our Top 50 MLB Free Agent list. Considered a true center fielder and leadoff man by most, Akiyama set the NPB single-season record for hits (216) in the 2015 season. He’s won six Golden Gloves in his home country, hit 69 home runs over his last three seasons with the Seibu Lions, and holds a 10.8 percent walk rate since 2016. Two problems: Akiyama will be 32 next April, a rather advanced age for an up-the-middle player, and he suffered a broken bone in his foot during an exhibition on Oct 31 and will need to show he is healthy in order to sign with an MLB team.
There’s certainly a chance some of these players may not come stateside this offseason, but each seems to represent a coveted potential asset in their own right. This year’s free agent market is generally slim pickings when it comes to center fielders, so Akiyama’s availability, in particular, is probably a welcome development for a number of clubs; better yet, he is free to sign a new deal with any club without being subject to the posting system and its concomitant fees.
Still, it’s fair to wonder if he can truly be considered the most viable play here. Tsutsugo offers immense immense power and relative youth, while there seems to be a fair number of clubs circling starting pitching options like Yamaguchi this offseason.
Which one do you believe is likely to receive the healthiest contract guarantee this winter? (Poll link for app users)