|Shohei Otani has the most upside of all players in Japan, but when can he come over?|
Obviously Daisuke Matsuzaka received the most hype in 2007 when the Boston Red Sox made an excessive bid for negotiating rights and paid more than $100 million for his services in fee and contract combined. Other players to come through the posting system include Yu Darvish, Ichiro Suzuki, Nori Aoki, Kei Igawa and Masahiro Tanaka (Ma-kun) and, to a lesser extent, Tsuyoshi Nishioka as well as Akinori Iwamura.
The question remains is who's next? Currently, there isn't a Ma-kun that will come in the immediate future, but there are players with some talent and upside that can be posted eventually.
With the current agreement between NPB and MLB, Major League teams get all the leverage by only paying a maximum of $20 million as a fee to the NPB team as compensation. Rather than negotiating rights being exclusive, teams can negotiate with the player like he is a free agent and give him a larger contract than before with the fee being paltry.
As a result, the Rakuten Golden Eagles became the biggest losers of the new agreement as they had to post Ma-kun with no choice, receiving almost nothing in return in compared to what the Seibu Lions got for Matsuzaka ($51.1 million) or the Fighters selling Darvish ($51.7 million).
Teams will want to keep their best player for a longer period of time, giving the person less time to adjust to MLB if he does make the leap to North America. For a position player, the compensation becomes less than $20 million because the value is not the same to MLB team in comparison to a pitcher.
Here, we will take a look at who should come from Nippon and should be in MLB soon. Some are just projections and longshots, but others will make the leap.
There is no posting fee for these players because they will be free agents. Similar to how the Oakland A's had Hiroyuki Nakajima for a two-year, $6.5 million contract because he was an international free agent.
P Seung-Hwan Oh (Hanshin Tigers): Oh spent several years in the KBO before joining the Tigers in 2014. He proved to be a great closer in his first season and still was decent last year. Oh had one rough month, but is most likely to pursue an MLB job. Problem is, he was part of a recent gambling scandal. While this won't affect his eligibility for MLB, it is a character concern.
1B/DH Dae-Ho Lee (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks): After being dominant in the Korean league (KBO), he initially started his NPB career with the Orix Buffaloes. The last two seasons were in Fukuoka where he displayed tremendous pop. He's a good contact hitter who can even hit doubles. He's 33 and will test the MLB market this offseason.
Too Old / Doubtful:
These are some players who were thought to have potential, but their projection doesn't look good or they are past their prime to be adjusting into the majors. Some of these guys had a chance, but now it looks bleak on the possibility of playing in MLB.
P Yusei Kikuchi (Saitama Seibu Lions): Kikuchi was hyped up out of high school at Hanamaki Higashi, the same place Otani went to school in Iwate prefecture. Like Otani, there was an outside shot he could have gone to MLB a year after Junichi Tazawa. After injuring himself previously, the once touted pitcher has not shown signs of being an ace, but just a No. 2 at best. He is still 24, but the ceiling could be caving in.
P Chihiro Kaneko (Orix Buffaloes): Kaneko has been the longtime ace of the Orix Buffaloes. He could be a free agent soon and not go through posting system, but he will be 32 this November. A team can take a chance on him as a veteran without a posting fee, but wouldn't be sought as an ace if he made the jump.
P Takayuki Kishi (Saitama Seibu Lions): Kishi will be 31 this December and while he has been the team's ace, he would be a No. 4 starter at best in MLB. It doesn't appear he'd be leaving NPB anytime soon unless he is an international free agent.
OF Yuki Yanagita (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks): Yanagita hit the 30-30 club for the first time in his career last season. Only problem is that the Hawks do not post players and even if he was on another team, he is already 27. Despite all the all-star accolades he's had, Yanagita is not coming to MLB unless he's a free agent.
OF Shogo Akiyama (Saitama Seibu Lions): Akiyama set a new hits record in NPB with 216 in a single season. According to John Gibson of ONE World Sports, he said one executive likes his plate discipline and getting on base. The 2015 season might be a fluke, but if he repeated similar success, he could draw consideration. Unfortunately, he is also 27 it wouldn't make much sense to enter MLB as a 30-year old rookie.
OF Yoshio Itoi (Orix Buffaloes): Itoi had the potential as a hitter and was a batting champion in 2014. However, he is 34 and that window closed a few years ago. His MLB potential put the Fighters in a bind and made them trade him to Orix in a rare blockbuster deal.
Still Young / Maybe?
These players are still building their portfolio of work. The jury will be out on them as they are older, but right now, it's too early to judge if they have MLB potential. There's a few older players listed here where there is a possibility, but not guaranteed.
C/OF/DH Tomoya Mori (Saitama Seibu Lions): Mori is only 20 and drafted straight out of high school from Osaka Toin by the Lions. He's able to mash and has home run potential. But like anything, it's too early after having one full season in NPB, but he has been a doubles machine for the Lions. At the earliest, he'd be in MLB by 2022 if he continued his pace from 2015.
P Shintaro Fujinami (Hanshin Tigers): Fujinami was the battery teammate of Mori while in high school and was the safer pick in the 2012 NPB Draft compared to Shohei Otani at the time. There was worry that Otani would sign with MLB and most teams backed off from trying to take him. He's on pace to be the ace o the Hanshin Tigers after being a solid strikeout pitcher. Like Mori, he wouldn't be anywhere near MLB until 2020 at the earliest.
P Takahiro Norimoto (Rakuten Golden Eagles): When Ma-kun left for the Yankees, Norimoto became the team's ace and proved to be a good pick from the 2012 NPB draft class. Only problem is that he was taken out of college and is older than most. At 25, he can still build his resume and if there are some dominant seasons, he could be posted before free agency and in MLB by 2021 at the earliest.
P Yuki Matsui (Rakuten Golden Eagles): Matsui was one of two top consensus picks in the 2013 NPB Draft. After losing Ma-kun, Rakuten won the lottery and ended up with Matsui as a parting gift for their ace leaving to the New York Yankees. After struggling as a starter initially, Rakuten made him their closer after an injury to their initial choice. His WHIP was dominant as a closer and nearly automatic for the Eagles. However, it's been reported he will be a starting pitcher in 2016 and needs to prove he can be good for more than one or two innings. If he has a strong run, he'd be in MLB by 2021 at the earliest.
P Yuji Nishino (Chiba Lotte Marines): Nishino was initially a starter for Chiba before they made him their closer. This move worked out well, because he has an effective splitter and fastball to compete. He wouldn't be eligible for free agency in seven years and he would need to dominate in order to come to MLB by 2021 at the earliest. Problem is, he's 24.
P Tomohiro Anraku (Rakuten Golden Eagles): Anraku had a lot of hype while still being a high school student, but his value decreased due to concerns about his arm and injury. He has a tremendous fastball, but wasn't ready for the ichi-gun until the end of the 2015 season, where he made his debut. The Eagles played it safe with the elbow concerns and didn't want to risk any long term injuries as he threw nearly 1,000 in a short span while in high school. He will be 19 this November and the earliest he'd be in MLB is around 2023.
Guaranteed to be Posted:
On this list, these are players who will be posted in the near future. Some players are eligible for free agency earlier than others, but teams will milk their control of someone rather than sell high with a small posting fee that would come their way.
P Tony Barnette (Yakult Swallows): The Swallows officially posted Barnette (per his request) to see if there is any MLB interest. Barnette is far from young as he recently turned 32. However, the Swallows closer came off his best career season in NPB in his sixth year in Japan. He was a career minor leaguer in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm where he only made it to AAA.
UPDATE: Barnette did not reach agreement after the posting fee, but struck a two-year deal with the Texas Rangers.
P Kenta Maeda (Hiroshima Carp): The Carp ace has been linked for a long time, but the team wants him to end on good terms in Japan. They were hoping for a dominant season from him in 2015, combined with the team success of making a run through the playoffs.
However, the Carp have posted Maeda and he is on the open market. Maeda won the Sawamura award (NPB Cy Young equivalent) for 2015 which increased his value. He is 27 and projects to be a No. 3 rotation starter in North America. We wrote a full scouting report on him here.
Here is tape of Maeda from the 2014 season:
P Shohei Otani (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters): Otani has been hyped up since he came out of high school and some thought he could go the path of Red Sox Tazawa by foregoing NPB and signing with a major league team working his way up. The Fighters were the only team to draft him and convinced Otani to sign a contract with them and stay in his home country two months after the 2012 draft.
Otani is only 21 and has several years of control remaining, meaning it will take some time before he comes to MLB. We did a breakdown of Otani which you can read here. The Fighters will hold onto him for some time, but if Darvish was posted at age 25, they can do the same for Otani. The earliest he would be in MLB would be 2018. He has the highest upside of any prospect in Japan and is intriguing for several teams watching him. I project he could be posted somewhere between 2017-2020, meaning he would be with an MLB team by 2018-2021.
You can watch all strikeout pitches from Otani's 196 K's on the 2015 season here.
2B Tetsuto Yamada (Yakult Swallows): Yamada is in the 30-30 club with good athleticism and has the potential of five-tools. He's only 23 and is still building his resume, but if he continues to be in the 30-30 club range, teams will be interested in his athletic abilities and his bat. Defensively, he's good, but not great in comparison to Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Carp. With Yamada still being young, the Swallows can still wait to post him, but his intrigue to be versatile with his bat is something an MLB team can't pass up. The earliest he'd be in MLB is most likely in 2019, where he would be 27.
Here is a video showing 28 of his 38 regular season home runs from 2015 (Video starts at 0:20).
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