The consensus top three NPB free agents this upcoming off season are Koji Uehara, Kenshin Kawakami, and Hitoki Iwase. I've already written about Uehara and Kawakami, so today I'll cover Chunichi Dragons closer Iwase.
Career Thus Far
Hitoki Iwawe is probably the most accomplished relief pitcher currently active in Japan. In his 10 professional seasons with the Dragons, he has a 2.02 ERA with 187 saves and 47-28 record. His peripherals are good as well: in 614 2/3 innings, he's struck out 565 while walking 140 and allowing only 26 home runs.
Chunichi moved Iwase into the closer role in 2004 with the departure of Akinori Otsuka, and he immediately flourished. In 2005 he set a new NPB save record with 45, starting a run of three consecutive 40 save seasons. That streak is unlikely to continue this year, as even though he has 27 saves so far, he'll miss time to play in the Olympics. Overall he's been a little more hittable this year, but still has a 2.87 ERA and 31/8 K/BB. JapaneseBaseball.com has Iwase's stats through 2007 available in English, and you can find his stats to date in Japanese here.
2007 Japan Series
The defining moment in Iwase's career was the deciding fifth game of the 2007 Japan Series. Dragons starter Daisuke Yamai had a perfect game through eight innings when manager Hiromitsu Ochiai controversially summoned Iwase to pitch the 9th. A nervous Iwase sent down the bottom of Nippon Ham's lineup in order, keeping the perfect game intact and giving Chunichi it's first Japan Championship since 1954.
PitchingIwase is a three-pitch guy, with a fastball, slider, and shuuto. He's not going to overpower anyone with a fastball that sits at about 89 MPH and doesn't get much faster. That said, his fastball has movement and he spots it well. Iwase's out pitch is his low 80's slider, which has good movement and he'll throw in any count. His third pitch is a shuuto, which he's throwing more often this year, particularly to right handed hitters. Iwase pitches down in the zone and generally has good command.
I've scrounged some YouTube footage of Iwase striking out Yoshinobu Takahashi, not getting the call on a couple of sliders, and throwing fastballs and shuutos in the 2006 All Star game. Yes, that is Daisuke Matsuzaka coaching third base in the All Star game.
Contract Status & MLB InterestIwase is among the highest paid pitchers in Japan with his approximately $4.3M/year salary. He qualified for free agency following the 2007 season, but opted to sign a one-year contract to remain with Chunichi. There was speculation that he wanted to see how other Japanese relievers like Masa Kobayashi fare in the big leagues. I'll also suggest that he wanted to spend another year pitching with his close friend Kenshin Kawakami, and that he wanted to represent Japan in the Olympics. This is purely speculation on my part.
The interest from the MLB side is there. Last year, Iwase drew public interest from the Rockies, Yankees, and White Sox. Sponichi reported earlier this year that the Mariners and Rangers had scouts at the Dragons' spring training camp. Joel Sherman commented on Iwase during last year's World Series.
For his part, Iwase seems to be less outspoken about leaving Japan than some of his NPB compatriots. His clearest comment I could find on the matter was "to say I'm not interested would be a lie".
You'd have to go back to Kazuhiro Sasaki to find an NPB closer with better career numbers than Iwase. Iwase actually beats Sasaki in some categories, but Sasaki's peak was better than Iwase's (so far).
Despite the struggles of Yasuhiko Yabuta and Kazuo Fukumori, NPB import relievers have a pretty good track record of MLB success thanks to guys like Sasaki, Akinori Otsuka, Hideki Okajima, and Takashi Saito. That point, combined with Iwase's achievements, seem to make him a reasonably safe bet for MLB success should he choose to come over. I think the key for him will be to mix up his stuff and not let MLB hitters sit on his fastball.