I've decided to take a cue from MLB Trade Rumors and make this free agent list a permanent page. Here you'll find a list of all the Japanese-league players who are eligible after the 2008 season.
NPB Free Agency Explained
NPB free agency is a little different from MLB free agency. Starting this year, there are two categories of free agency: domestic and international. NPB players qualifying for domestic free agency can only move to other NPB teams, while players qualifying for international free agency are free to try their luck abroad as well.
Domestic free agency requires 8 years of service time, while international free agency requires 9 years. One year of service time is defined as 150 days on the team's top roster. Time spent on the farm time or injured list does not count as service time toward free agency. This is why guys like Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara won't be free agents until after this year despite having started their careers in the late 90's.
NPB teams signing NPB free agents are required to compensate the player's former team with either money or players. The system is changing considerably for the 2008/9 off season. I've written about this in a little more detail in an earlier post. MLB teams do not pay compensation to NPB teams when signing NPB free agents.
Unlike MLB, it is not uncommon for NPB players to forgo their right to declare free agency and remain with their previous team. In fact, exercising free agency rights seems to be more the exception than the norm in NPB. This makes the common MLB practice of trading impending free agents as rentals non-existent in Japan. One tactic Japanese teams will employ is posting obviously MLB-bound players a year before they hit free agency.
International Free Agents
Koji Uehara (P, Yomiuri Giants): Of the current crop of upcoming free agents, Uehara is the most outspoken about his desire to play in MLB. I've profiled him and ranked him against Kawakami and Iwase.
Tomohiro Nioka (SS, Yomiuri Giants): I'm not sure if Nioka will rack up the service time he needs to move internationally by the end of the season. He's gotten some negative publicity over his extra-marital flirtation with a TV newscaster this season, so the Giants may be ready to move on from him.
Ryoji Aikawa (C, Yokohama BayStars): I don't see him leaving Yokohama. Aikawa comments on his free agency: "when I joined the team I didn't think I could do this. I'll consider what to do after the season."
Naoyuki Ohmura (CF, Softbank Hawks): Ohmura has stated publicly that he wants to try his hand at MLB. "I want to go," says Ohmura, "life is short and you only get one chance at it." Ohmura is a contact hitter with zero power. He can probably start for an NPB team that gets power from other positions, or be possibly be a 4th outfielder type in MLB. Think So Taguchi.
Norihiro Nakamura (3B, Chunichi Dragons): "Not interested in other teams" were his exact words. Has had two MLB flirtations and drama at Kintetsu/Orix before finally settling into a groove with Chunichi. I can't see him anywhere else.
Masafumi Hirai (RP, Chunichi Dragons): Qualified for free agency last year, but elected to sign a one year contract with Chunichi. Having a bad season. Kind of an MLB sleeper type. Update, Oct 21: not filing for free agency; will attempt to regain his form with Chunichi. "If I had put up really great results this year I probably would have thought about it," said Hirai.
Atsunori Inaba (OF, Nippon Ham Fighters): Inaba's contract is up, but he's unlikely to move. Inaba had looked to play in America when he originally qualified for free agency, but was only offered minor league contracts.
Tasuku Hashimoto (C, Chiba Lotte Marines): Hashimoto feels like he can start, but is stuck behind all-star Tomoya Satozaki, so I think he'll be likely to try his fortunes somewhere else. A number of teams are rumored to be interested after his strong 2008 season (.311, 11hr off the bench), but Hanshin is expected to make the biggest play to sign him. Current Tigers catcher Akihiro Yano won't last forever, and there's no internal heir apparent.
Saburo (OF, Chiba Lotte Marines): Saburo's two-year contract is coming to an end, and he's considering his options, which includemoving to MLB. Saburo is quoted as saying, "I've compared myself to the major league rightfielders that I see on TV, and if I'm going to go now is my only chance." Saburo is coming off a solid offensive season (.289/.359/.416) and has won Gold Gloves in 2005 and 2007, but he still profiles as a 4th outfielder on most teams.
NPB-only Free Agents
Ryota Igarashi (RP, Yakult Swallows): The hard-throwing reliever will carefully think over his options in the off-season. He's eligible for domestic free agency, and he's in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.
Akihiro Higashide (2B, Hiroshima Carp): Higashide made some comments that you don't typically hear from Japanese players: "I've worked hard to reach free agency. This is the result of year after year of fighting to be my best. I have to put good results in this kind of year." True to his words, Higashide is in the midst of a break-out season, third in the Central League with a .334 BA (career BA: .255). It looks like he's qualified for domestic free agency; there is speculation that he could draw interest from Hanshin, Yomiuri, and Chunichi. I would hate to see Hiroshima lose yet another star.
Hisanori Takahashi (SP, Yomiuri Giants): Takahashi just recently qualified. "I've got this season on my mind and right now I don't have the luxury of thinking about it," said Takahashi, adding "it's a milestone, and a personal reward. I want to think about what to do as an individual baseball player."
Naoyuki Shimizu (SP, Chiba Lotte Marines): Shimizu was set to be a hot commodity among NPB teams this winter, drawing rumored interested from Hanshin, Rakuten, Yakult, Yokohama and the Giants, but has recently revealed that he intends to pass on free agency this year with an eye toward the majors later on.
Shingo Ono (SP, Chiba Lotte Marines): After a little indecision, Ono appears to be leaning towards free agency. "I feel like would like to remain with Lotte, but they're developing good young pitchers and I have to think about moving. I have confidence that I can play for another team." Yokohama is rumored to be interested in his services.