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, we’ll split the “names to watch” rundown into two posts — one covering the Japan Pacific League and another still to come on the Japan Central League.
Teams have been ordered based on 2019 records:
Saitama Seibu Lions (80-62-1):
- Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP: You read that right. Dice-K is still chugging along. The now-39-year-old veteran pitched just 5 1/3 innings for the Chunichi Dragons last year due to a shoulder injury that, according to the Japan Times, was caused by an excited fan grabbing/yanking his arm (seriously). Matsuzaka was NPB’s comeback player of the year in 2018 and is returning to the Lions, his original club, for the first time since 2006.
- Cory Spangenberg, INF/OF: Primarily an infielder during his big league career, Spangenberg is listed as an outfielder by the Lions. The former No. 10 overall pick (Padres, 2011) hit .256/.318/.389 in six MLB campaigns before signing with the Lions back in December. He’ll make his NPB debut once play begins.
- Sean Nolin, LHP: Signed the same day as Spangenberg, the 30-year-old Nolin is also slated for his NPB debut. A once highly touted pitching prospect, he’s perhaps best known for being part of the Athletics’ disappointing return for Josh Donaldson. Nolin has a 6.89 ERA in 31 1/3 innings, a 3.61 mark in 231 2/3 Triple-A frames and a long injury history. Japan could be a fresh start for the lefty.
- Zach Neal, RHP: The 31-year-old Neal has a 4.94 ERA in 85 2/3 big league frames — one as a Dodger and the rest with the A’s. He logged 100 innings with the Lions last year and turned in a shiny 2.87 ERA, which his camp hoped would lead to MLB interest. Neal’s 4.6 K/9 in NPB didn’t turn many head, though, and whatever offers he received from MLB teams didn’t top the two-year, $4MM deal he signed to return to the Lions. He’ll be in NPB through the 2021 season, at the least.
- Reed Garrett, RHP: The longtime Rangers farmhand was the Tigers’ Rule 5 pick in the 2018-19 offseason. He tossed 15 1/3 shaky innings before being returned to the Texas org. The 27-year-old will hope to follow similar paths to those of Chris Martin, Joely Rodriguez and other relievers who’ve thrived overseas and returned to MLB on multi-year deals.
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (76-62-5):
- Tsuyoshi Wada, LHP: Wada, 39, signed with the Orioles back in 2011 but never pitched there due to injury. He latched on with the Cubs for the 2014-15 seasons, though, and tossed 101 2/3 innings of 3.36 ERA ball before returning to Japan. He was excellent in his 2016 return but has battled injuries since. He logged a 3.90 ERA in 57 2/3 frames when healthy last year.
- Matt Moore, LHP: Moore surprised quite a few people by signing in Japan this winter, but the $3.5MM guarantee and $2.5MM worth of incentives he secured may well have been more than a team would’ve paid him coming off a season lost to knee surgery. Heralded as a potential ace at his prospect peak, Moore impressed with the Rays from 2011-13 but never fully regained his form after 2014 Tommy John surgery.
- Rick van den Hurk, RHP: Now 35 years old, Van Den Hurk hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2012. That’s due largely to his emergence as a high-end starter in the KBO from 2012-13, and the success he enjoyed there led him to his current starring role with the Hawks. Over the past four years, the Dutch righty has a 3.50 ERA and nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings through 483 frames.
- Dennis Sarfate, RHP: It’s been more than a decade since Sarfate last pitched in the big leagues, but the righty hasn’t felt any inclination to return. He’s one of the all-time great relievers in NPB, having pitched to an immaculate 1.57 ERA with 234 saves, 11.9 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 since arriving in 2011. Not bad for a former ninth-rounder with a 4.53 ERA in 119 MLB innings!
- Wladimir Balentien, OF: Yes — the Hawks’ roster is a veritable who’s who of obscure, 2009-era big leaguers. Balentien last saw MLB action in ’09, and like Sarfate, he’s become a star in Asia. Balentien spent nine years mashing for the Yakult Swallows, as evidenced by a .273/.378/.558 slash and a whopping 288 home runs to date in NPB. The Hawks shelled out a two-year, $10MM deal — considerable money in Japan — to sign the 35-year-old.
- Alfredo Despaigne, OF and Carter Stewart. RHP*: Neither player has ever appeared in MLB, but both are known names. Despaigne is one of the most prolific sluggers in the history of the Cuban National Series, and the 33-year-old has continued to rake in Japan. Stewart was a first-round pick who opted not to sign with the Braves in 2018 after concerns arose in his physical. He instead signed a six-year, $6.2MM deal to head to Japan. He spent last year in the Hawks’ developmental/minor league but could make his NPB debut in 2020.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (71-68-4):
- Kazuhisa Makita, RHP: The submariner’s two-year deal with the Padres didn’t pan out as hoped, and Makita is back in NPB for the 2020 season. He previously starred for the Lions, logging a 2.83 ERA in seven seasons of relief work, and could have another few good years in his NPB career at age 35.
- JT Chargois, RHP: A second-round pick by the Twins in 2012, Chargois dealt with injuries and never solidified himself either in Minnesota or with the Dodgers. He’s been lights out in his minor league career (1.90 ERA in Triple-A) but hasn’t come close to that in the Majors (4.58 in 76 2/3 innings). The 29-year-old will make his NPB debut in 2020.
- Alan Busenitz, RHP: Another former Twins reliever, Busenitz gave Minnesota 31 2/3 frames of 1.99 ERA ball as a rookie but posted some troubling peripheral marks. He indeed regressed the following season, when he was hammered for an ERA and FIP north of 7.00. Busenitz dominated for the Eagles last year, though, recording a 1.69 ERA with 7.7 K/9 against 3.4 BB/9. He’s still only 29, so perhaps an eventual MLB return can’t be ruled out.
- Zelous Wheeler, INF: Wheeler had a quick cup of coffee with the 2014 Yankees and left for Japan the next year. He’s hit .262/.339/.459 in five seasons with the Eagles. He’s coming off a bit of a down year, having batted .243/.320/.418 last year.
- Jabari Blash, OF: Known for his light-tower power in the U.S., Blash never found his footing in the big leagues but looks like a potential star in Japan. He bashed 33 homers last year while hitting .261/.397/.540 in his NPB debut with the Eagles. He signed a one-year deal to return to them this past winter, but perhaps he’ll eventually consider an MLB return.
- Stefen Romero, OF: The former Mariner, 31, hit a combined .268/.332/.494 with the Orix Buffaloes from 2017-19 before signing with the Eagles this offseason. If he continues to produce in NPB, there’s a chance that Romero, like Blash, could stage a big league comeback.
Chiba Lotte Marines (69-70-4):
- Leonys Martin, OF: Among the most recognizable players on this list, the 32-year-old Martin hit .244/.301/.367 in nearly 2800 plate appearances spread across five teams. He joined NPB midway through the 2019 season, hitting .232/.342/.495 for the Marines. He re-upped in December and will spend his first full season in Japan this year.
- Frank Herrmann, RHP: A former Indians and Phillies hurler, the soon-to-be 36-year-old Herrmann has spent three seasons with the Eagles. He’s emerged as a key member of the bullpen, notching a tidy 2.59 ERA with better than a strikeout per inning in 145 2/3 frames. Herrmann also picked up 18 saves in 2018.
- Jay Jackson, RHP: Jackson, 32, starred for the Hiroshima Carp from 2016-18 before making a big league comeback with the Brewers in 2019. He tossed 30 2/3 frames and logged a 4.45 ERA with the Brewers last year, but is on his way back to NPB — presumably for a solid payday given his prior excellence there (176 innings, 2.10 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 3.5 BB/9).
- Brandon Laird, INF: Laird, 32, made the jump to Japan in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. His on-base numbers aren’t much to look at, but he’s a consistent power threat who spent four years with the Fighters and is entering his second with the Marines. In 2781 plate appearances in NPB, Laird has batted .241/.314/.480 with 163 long balls.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (65-73-5):
- Nick Martinez, RHP: Things never really clicked for Martinez in four years with the Rangers’ big league club. He turned in a 3.51 ERA in 161 2/3 frames with the Fighters in his NPB debut in 2018, though, and returned on a $2.2MM deal for 2019. Injuries limited him to four innings last year, and the 29-year-old Martinez will again suit up for the Fighters on a one-year pact in 2020.
- Drew VerHagen, RHP: The big 6’6″ righty spent parts of six seasons with the Tigers and was with Detroit up through last season. VerHagen, 29, has a 5.11 ERA in 199 MLB innings but will look for better results overseas.
- Christian Villanueva, INF: Last year’s debut campaign didn’t go as Villanueva or his team, the Yomiuri Giants, hoped. The 28-year-old former Cubs prospect hit just .223/.325/.386 in 73 games. The league still had some faith, though, as Villanueva signed a new deal with the Fighters this winter. He does have a career .263/.328/.457 slash in Triple-A, so perhaps a second go-around in NPB will be more fruitful.
- Bryan Rodriguez, RHP and Po-Jung Wang, OF*: Neither has played in the Majors, but Rodriguez came into his own in Japan last year. The former Padres prospect posted a 3.25 ERA in 91 innings of relief — albeit with a lackluster 5.4 K/9 mark. Wang, meanwhile, was one of the best hitters in Tawain’s CPBL before inking a three-year, $3.554MM deal with the Fighters last year. The first year was a flop (.647 OPS), but if the 26-year-old can tap into his CPBL form (.386/.455/.646), he might be a name for MLB clubs to monitor.
Orix Buffaloes (61-75-7):
- Adam Jones, OF: Jones shocked baseball fans when he took a two-year, $8MM deal to join the Buffaloes last December. The 34-year-old is easily the most decorated big leaguer on this list, but he found last year’s trip through free agency rather disappointing, landing only a one-year, $3MM deal with the D-backs. Perhaps not wanting to languish for another season as MLB clubs viewed him as a part-time player, Jones took a nice payday overseas and will bring some legitimate star power to the last-place Buffaloes.
- Andrew Albers, LHP: Albers, 34, had a solid big league run from 2013-17, posting a 4.10 ERA in 120 MLB frames. He was outstanding with Orix in 2018 (3.08 ERA in 114 innings), which he parlayed into a two-year, $4.5MM extension. Year one of that deal didn’t go well (5.83 ERA in 63 innings), but he’ll look to bounce back in year two.
- Brandon Dickson, RHP: Dickson pitched 14 2/3 innings with the 2011-12 Cardinals but left for the Buffaloes in 2013. He’s become a staple on the pitching staff, logging a combined 3.32 ERA through 856 2/3 innings as a Buffalo.
- Steven Moya, OF: Once one of the Tigers’ best prospects, Moya had a nice debut with the Chunichi Dragons in 2018 (.301/.347/.441) but struggled with both the Dragons and the Buffaloes in 2019. Still just 28 years old, he’ll hope to bounce back in his third season overseas.