MlbTradeRumors.com has been kind enough to link to me several times, most recently from post about impending NPB free agents. Too bad I didn't finish this over the weekend; if I had Tim could have included this profile of Chunichi Dragons ace Kenshin Kawakami as well.
Kawakami has, in my opinion, the most MLB potential of any of the upcoming NPB free agents. I expect to see him in an MLB uniform next season, based on public statements he's made:
"Saying I don't want to go would be a lie. As long as I'm playing baseball, it's fine to aim high. I think it's also fine to consider the future."
"Because I like the Chunichi Dragons, I want to challenge myself to go to the Majors. My plan is to go to the Majors, gain experience there, and come back to the Nagoya in the end."
These comments were made in a live talkshow event after the 2006 season, but I have no reason to think he's changed his mind since then. It's worth noting that former teammates Akinori Ohtsuka and Kosuke Fukudome have both had success at the MLB level, which might be a bit of a confidence-booster.
Career Path & Personal Accolades
Kawakami is not quite as decorated as Koji Uehara, but he's close. Kawakami's pro career started in 1998, went he went 14-6 and took the Rookie of the Year award. He then took a step back and went through some wilderness years between ‘99 and ‘01, but bounced back in 2002 with a 12-6 record and 2.35 ERA. He also threw a no-hitter in ‘02 against a Giants team that still featured Hideki Matsui.
The right hander has put in strong performances each year since then, including 2003 when he missed significant time with an injury. He won the Sawamura Award as Japan's top pitcher as well as the Central MVP in 2004, when he went 17-7 with a 3.32 ERA in 192 IP. He was actually better in 2006, again going 17-7 but with 2.51 ERA in 215 IP. He lost out on the Sawamura that year to a dominant Kazumi Saitoh.
Other personal achievements include three Gold Gloves, two Best Nine Awards, two victory titles and one strikeout title. He also holds an NPB record with eight Monthly MVP awards, the most recent coming last month.
Kawakami is having another strong year (find his stats in English here) but will probably lose out on the Sawamura again, this time to Yu Darvish.
Kawakami's Dragons won the Central League crowns in 1999, 2004, and 2006 and took the Japan Series in 2007. The 2007 Japan Championship was only second in team history, and the first since 1954. The ‘07 Japan Series ended in dramatic fashion; maybe I'll write about that another time. For now I'll point you to this Baseball Prospectus article (free for the week) and Marinerds, etc.
Kawakami isn't overpowering; his fastball tops out in the low 90's. His control is good, though not quite as awe-inspiring as Koji Uehara's. And his windup isn't deceptive, like many Japanese pitchers. Kawakami gets by purely on quality stuff.
Kawakami's featured pitch is a cut fastball, which, according to Wikipedia, is known as Japan's finest among visiting MLB All-Stars. He also has a slow curve, which he throws at 65-70 MPH. The rest of his arsenal is fairly typical: fastball, shuuto, fork. He changes speeds pretty well, particularly between his curve and harder stuff.
I've selected some YouTube footage from Kawakami's most recent appearance, Chunichi's 2-1 loss to Hanshin on July 18. Kawakami took a no-decision, striking out 10 and allowing one earned run over 8.0 innings. 2nd inning, 3rd/4th inning, 8th inning, and just for fun, Kyuji Fujikawa's appearance in the 9th (pt1/pt2).
Also of Note
For those of you that read Japanese, Kenshin maintains a blog here. He is close friends with Chunichi closer Hitoki Iwase, and will be joining him on Japan's Olympic roster. Wikipedia mentions a friendly rivalry with Uehara - Uehara taught Kawakami his fork, while Kawakami returned the favor by teaching Uehara his cutter. Kawakami is also known as a gutsy player who is not afraid to show his emotions on the field.
Uehara's stock has slipped some this season, so I think Kawakami has a chance to be the most highly sought after MLB import this off season. I would speculate that he can be a solid mid-rotation guy that you can win with at that MLB level.