Last December, we asked our friends at East Windup Chronicle to discuss a few players of interest who were making the jump from Japan to MLB. Aaron Shinsano and Jackson Broder have some time on their hands right now, since neither of them are involved in the head-to-head fantasy semifinals. (I'm heavily involved, which is why I've only got time for the italicized intro). They were kind enough to offer some thoughts on players likely to arrive in 2009.
JAPANESE FREE AGENTS FOR 2009
With Daisuke Matsuzaka's emergence as Boston's ace, Ichiro's Hall of Fame-caliber MLB career, and the early success of Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, Japanese stars have finally become household names in MLB. Fans are no longer subject to stories about sushi and samurais every time a signing from Asia takes place, and with the exception of a few cringe-worthy t-shirts, Japanese players appear to have integrated seamlessly into MLB's landscape.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to Wrigley (or Kauffman Stadium, or Progressive Field) as the next wave of free agents get ready to sign with MLB clubs: Japan got hammered in the 2008 Olympics by Korea and Cuba, casting some doubt on how Japanese stars' games might translate to international play and MLB.
Meanwhile, in the show, 2008's crop of free agents struggled to make the splash that international scouts and fans were hoping for. Yasuhiko Yabuta was a human punching bag in Kansas City and failed to last the season with the big league club. Kazuo Fukumori was released by the Rangers and now resides on the minor league disabled list. Masahide Kobayashi was just mediocre, giving up too many home runs while failing to hold down the closer job with the Tribe when given the opportunity. (Lefties were particularly cruel to Kobayashi, belting six home runs off him in 23.1 innings. At various times, Jensen Lewis, several hot dog eating contest runner-ups, and random fan appreciation day contest winners took over as Cleveland's closer).
In Wrigleyville, Kosuke Fukudome started off the year looking like a fantasy steal -- he was billed as Abreu-lite in last season's installment -- but was unable to make necessary adjustments as the league caught on in the second half. He's currently slugging only .380, and until he catches up with left handers (no home runs and only eight extra base hits in 119 tries) he's a long way from the Ichiro comparisons that once seemed inevitable.
With this in mind, while this year's three most likely MLB defectors -- Koji Uehara, Hitoki Iwase, and Kenshin Kawakami -- have the potential to be solid MLB players and fantasy contributors, owners may need to temper their expectations before adding the latest crop of FA's to their roster next year.
Here's a rundown of the likely defectors. We've also added a few players to keep on your radar for upcoming seasons and/or in case they get posted by their Japanese clubs, as unlikely as it is.
Koji Uehara, RHP Yomiuri Giants
The high-profile Tokyo Giants control freak missed qualifying for free agency for the 2008 season due to a DL stint, and this may have cost him a shot at the majors. Uehara has seen his stock drop more than any Japanese pitcher due to a simply abysmal season in NPB. He's given up 63 hits in 51.1 innings, and has a 3-4 record with a 5.08 ERA and .309 batting average against him. Moreover, Uehara has been bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation, making his future MLB role uncertain. In his seven games at home this year, he's sporting a 5.87 ERA.
Uehara, who is most often compared to Brad Radke, is famous for having pinpoint command of his fastball, cutter, fork, and slider, but is losing velocity and separation according to multiple sources.
Given his star status in Japan, Uehara is likely to ask for big time money for his services, and MLB teams may be hesitant to bite given the deterioration of his stat line. Uehara could hit a mosquito from 1,000 meters, but without velo he may not be worth the high price tag.
Hitoki Iwase, LHP Chunichi Dragons
Just over a year ago, when Hitoki Iwase was brought in during the ninth inning to finish a Japan Series clinching perfect game, it was an extreme example of a manager's confidence in his closer. Iwase didn't disappoint, setting down the opposition single-file to snare the franchise's first championship since 1954.
Following the series, there was talk Iwase might bolt for MLB in time for the 2008 season. After a great deal of hesitation on his part, he decided to sign a one-year deal, at least in part to play in the Olympics. It's doubtful a fourth place finish was what he had in mind. Even worse, Iwase stunk in Beijing. In 4.2 innings batters tagged him for 10 hits and seven ER, including a critical eighth inning home run in the semifinal versus Korea. Add a significant increase in ERA this season, and Iwase's value has taken a big hit over the past year. Rate him ahead of the three Japanese relievers that signed for 2008, but his mix of mostly straight fastballs (which now top out around 90), slider, and reverse slider might not translate into anything more than an unspectacular lefty specialist.
Kenshin Kawakami, RHP Chunichi Dragons
K/BB is a telling stat for Kawakmi. In 2007, Kawakami averaged just 1.24 BB/9, but also had a 7.80 K/9, good for a 6.3 K/BB. To find a recent MLB ratio that good you'd have to go back to Curt Schilling's 6.54 in 2006. This season both his Ks (108) and walks (24) are up a touch through 106.1 innings, but the bottom line is, this is a pitcher who will miss bats and won't give up free passes. Add durability into the mix, and expect the bidding war to get fierce as Kawakami emerges as arguably the best -- and consequently most expensive -- of this year's Japanese free agent class. Be forewarned, though, that not all scouts are sold on Kawakami. He's been billed everywhere from a No. 3 starter to a back-end rotation spot starter.
Yu Darvish, RHP Nippon Ham Fighters
Ah, sweet Yu. What is there left to say?
Darvish just turned 22 at the end of August and is turning in another solid campaign, to the tune of 12-4 with a 1.97 ERA. However, en route to the Hall of Fame, Darvish looked slightly rattled in the team's first game with Cuba and gave up four ER through four IP. He also walked four. He started a game against the United States, but only went two innings before being removed. He appeared again in the bronze medal game versus the US, but strangely didn't enter until the eighth with the team already down 8-4. He also threw two wild pitches in that game. He's given up more dingers (10) than he did during all of last year (9 through 207.1 innings), and is facing stiff competition to win this this year's Sawamura (Cy Japan), as Hisashi Iwakuma is having an unreal 17-3, sub-2.00 ERA season for Rakuten.
But let's be realistic. As last week's eight-inning, one-dribbler up the middle, eight-strikeout performance proved, Darvish is still rightfully the most coveted pitching prospect in Asia. Should he decide to cross the pond this offseason, he will very likely make Dice-K's $50 million posting fee look like a few stray dried squid legs.
Two to keep on your radar...
Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP Hanshin Tigers: For those of you who don't speak Japanese, Fujikawa translates roughly into "Rob Dibble circa 1990". Unlike his craftier peers, the 6'1, 28 year-old righty packs heat, pounding the strike zone with 93-95 mph rising fastballs, mixing in a curveball and forkball. He has been virtually unhittable in NPB as Hanshin's closer in 2008, saving 32 games in 45 innings. Opposing hitters have managed only a .151 average against him, and he is striking out 12.8 batters per nine innings with 64 Ks and only 9 walks. Fujikawa was one of Japan's few bright spots in his limited run during Japan's disappointing campaign in Beijing, striking out seven in four innings with just one earned. Unfortunately for MLB fans, Fujikawa will not be eligible for free agency until the end of the 2009 season, unless he is posted by the Hanshin Tigers.
Yoshihisa Naruse, LHP, Chiba Lotte Marines: Standing 5-11 and maxing out at 87 MPH, the baby-faced Naruse often gets overlooked in the discussion of Japanese star pitchers. MLB teams that overlook him when his free agency arrives will regret it. Naruse is a chess-player of the highest order, painting like Caravaggio with a mixture of impeccably located fastballs, sliders, and his signature change-up. He is a clever marksman that does more with less and gets into hitters' heads due to a deceptive delivery and smarts.
Through 2007, the 23-year-old Naruse was 21-6 lifetime with a 2.32 ERA, striking out 221 and walking only 48 in 251.2 innings. In 2008, he's 6-6 with a 3.30 ERA, and he's holding opposing hitters to a .224 average. Naruse was particularly dominant during the Olympics, hurling 12 scoreless innings while striking out 19, far outperforming his rock star teammate Yu Darvish. MLB teams that pass on him due to his lack of velocity may miss out on an effective back end of the rotation starter...at least.
Naruse is only in his third year with Chiba. He has six more years to go before he's eligible for free agency, meaning he will have to be posted if he is to join an MLB club.
Photo via Getty Images