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 South Korea’s Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) before turning to the hitters of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). 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 the NPB’s hurlers from abroad …
- The Saitama Seibu Lions slugged their way to the best record in the Japan Pacific League, but they got some of their best innings from imported pitchers. Former Dodgers and Athletics righty Zach Neal turned in 100 1/3 innings of 2.87 ERA ball after spending some time with their minor league affiliate early on. He could be eyeing a return to the Majors, though a 4.6 K/9 rate in Japan is a red flag even if it’s accompanied by a pristine 1.3 BB/9 mark. Righties Kyle Martin and Deunte Heath, who had quite brief stints with the Red Sox and White Sox, respectively, helped the Lions as well. Martin notched a 3.67 ERA in 41 2/3 innings (albeit with 28 walks), while Heath chipped in 31 1/3 innings of 3.73 ERA ball and averaged 9.8 K/9 against 4.0 BB/9.
- Mariners fans surely remember Cuban-born lefty Ariel Miranda, who started 40 games for them from 2016-18. Now 30, Miranda tossed 86 innings for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and notched a respectable 4.19 ERA in a hitter-friendly league, though he carried an unsightly 58-to-48 K/BB ratio. Dutch righty Rick van den Hurk hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2012, having carved out a career between the KBO and NPB. He only pitched 17 2/3 innings for the Hawks this season but turned in a 3.12 ERA and a terrific 22-to-2 K/BB ratio. Given his track record there — 3.50 ERA in nearly 500 NPB innings — the 34-year-old could be in Japan to stay. The Hawks also enjoyed 57 2/3 innings of 3.90 ERA ball from Japanese-born southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada, who was with the Cubs from 2014-15 before returning to Japan. At 38 years of age, he’s still chugging along.
- Former Twins righty Alan Busenitz and former Indians righty Frank Herrmann formed a dominant setup combo for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Busenitz chipped in 51 frames with a 1.94 ERA with 7.9 K/9 against 3.5 BB/9. Herrmann’s 3.04 ERA and 49-to-16 K/BB ratio in 47 2/3 innings hardly went unnoticed, either. Herrmann will turn 36 early next season, but Busenitz is still just 29.
- The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters didn’t benefit much from former big leaguers, as right-hander Johnny Barbato struggled through 32 innings. Avid Indians fans may remember right-hander Toru Murata, who pitched 3 1/3 innings for the Tribe in ’15 after spending several years in their minor league system. He chipped in 34 innings with a 3.18 ERA but walked nearly as many hitters (21) as he struck out (22). Former Cubs righty Justin Hancock tossed seven innings but was hit hard. Padres diehards may remember minor league righty Bryan Rodriguez, who tossed 91 1/3 innings of 3.25 ERA ball for the Fighters.
- Left-hander Andrew Albers, formerly of the Twins and Mariners, was dominant for the Orix Buffaloes in 2018 but took a step back with a 5.83 ERA in in 63 1/3 innings. The Buffaloes, however, received a seventh strong season from perhaps forgotten Cardinals righty Brandon Dickson, who posted a 3.03 ERA in 35 2/3 frames and has racked up 856 innings of 3.32 ERA ball since first signing with the Buffaloes back in 2013. Orix also picked up former Pirates prospect Tyler Eppler prior to the 2019 season, and after spending some time with the Buffaloes’ minor league club, he emerged with a 4.02 ERA, 7.2 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 31 1/3 innings.
- The 2019 Yomiuri Giants received innings from four former big league pitchers: Taylor Jungmann, Rubby De La Rosa, Scott Mathieson and Ryan Cook. Jungmann struggled to an ERA just over 6.00 in 44 1/3 innings, while De La Rosa fared best (2.25 ERA in 25 innings). Mathieson, now 35, was limited to 22 2/3 innings of 4.37 ERA ball but has been a consistently impressive presence in the Giants’ bullpen since 2012 (2.46 ERA, 54 saves in 431 frames). Cook tallied just 15 innings and surrendered eight runs.
- Lefty Edwin Escobar’s biggest claim to fame in affiliated stateside ball might’ve been being included in a trade for Jake Peavy, but the 27-year-old has become a force in Japan. In his third season overseas, he turned in 75 1/3 innings of 2.51 ERA ball with 10.5 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 for the second-place Yokohama DeNa BayStars. Former Cubs righty Spencer Patton took a step back after a dominant 2018 with the BayStars, tossing 36 2/3 innings but posting a 5.15 ERA. He did rack up 45 punchouts in that time. And former Nats lefty Sammy Solis made a brief 2019 cameo with the Yokohama club as well, tossing 4 1/3 innings with one run allowed.
- Right-hander Randy Messenger, of mid-2000s Marlins/Giants/Mariners fame, has become one of NPB’s best starters but struggled a bit in his age-37 season (4.67 ERA in 79 innings). But with more than 1600 innings of 3.13 ERA ball in a decade’s worth of time in Japan, he’s left a legacy with the Hanshin Tigers and been compensated handsomely for his efforts. The Tigers also received 103 2/3 innings of 4.69 ERA ball from righty Onelki Garcia, who tossed a combined 7 1/3 innings between the Dodgers and Royals in MLB. Hanshin was also a who’s-who of former Cubs, with righties Pierce Johnson, Kyuji Fujikawa and Rafael Dolis logging significant time. Johnson was brilliant, notching an immaculate 1.38 EA with 14.0 K/9 against 2.0 BB/9 in 58 2/3 frames. Fujikawa (1.77 ERA) and Dolis (2.11 ERA) split closing duties and combined for 35 saves in 111 1/3 innings (both split almost evenly).
- Former big league righties Casey Lawrence (Mariners) and Johnny Hellweg (Brewers) made extremely fleeting appearances with the Hiroshima Carp, who boasted perhaps the most impactful foreign pitcher in the league: lefty Kris Johnson. The former Twins/Pirates hurler has been flat-out dominant in five seasons with the Carp, totaling 756 1/3 innings with a 2.54 ERA, 7.0 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 since making the jump. He’ll turn 35 next week, but it’s perhaps worth noting that the former Sawamura Award winner’s record contract is expiring.
- Remember situational lefty Enny Romero? He’s not only starting games for the Chunichi Dragons, he’s doing so fairly well. In 116 frames this year, he posted a 4.26 ERA with 8.1 K/9 against 4.3 BB/9. Fellow southpaw Joely Rodriguez, who spent parts of two seasons with the Phillies, overwhelmed NPB hitters with a 1.64 ERA, 11.5 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 in 55 2/3 frames out of the Dragons’ pen. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka — yes, that Daisuke Matsuzaka — tossed 5 1/3 innings with the Dragons at the age of 39, but he didn’t fare well. To this point, however, he’s announced no plans to retire.
- Lastly, the Yakult Swallows had five former big leaguers suit up for them: righty David Buchanan, right-hander Scott McGough, southpaw David Huff, righty Ryota Igarashi (blast from the past!) and right-hander Albert Suarez. Buchanan paced the group at 99 2/3 innings, though his 4.79 ERA wasn’t much to behold. McGough notched 11 saves and a 3.15 ERA, however, while Huff continued his strong overseas career with a 3.97 ERA. Igarashi is still going strong with a 2.98 ERA at age 40, and Suarez yielded just three runs in 17 2/3 innings.