This offseason could see some high-profile Japanese ballplayers make the move overseas to the major leagues. It's a "bumper crop," and the jewel in this class of potential exports is Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish.
Shortstops Hiroyuki Nakajima of the Seibu Lions and Munenori Kawasaki of the Softbank Hawks, and Yakult Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki are candidates to leave Japan in the coming months-Nakajima and Aoki through the posting system and Kawasaki as a free agent. But it's Japan's pitchers who seem to be the most sought-after commodity.
Here, then, is a look at five NPB pitchers who may be wearing the uniforms of American League or National League clubs in 2012.
-- Right-hander Darvish is still just 25 years old and is in the prime of his career. Arguably the best pitcher in Japanese baseball, Darvish has been mowing down hapless NPB hitters since being drafted in the first round out of high school by the Pacific League's Fighters in 2004.
Plenty of MLB clubs were interested in Darvish, the product of an Iranian father and Japanese mother, back in his high school days, too. But now they may finally get a chance to land the strong-armed phenom. However, it will cost them.
Darvish, yet to achieve international free-agent status, which takes nine years in Japan, is likely to be posted by Nippon-Ham this offseason, meaning the MLB club that submits the highest sealed bid will win the rights to negotiate for his services.
While it's fair to say that there is not a baseball team on the planet that would not love to sign a player like Darvish, there are few teams around that can afford to. Darvish and his 150-kph-plus fastball have been drawing MLB scouts in droves, but look for the usual suspects-the ones with the biggest bank accounts-to be the players in this drama: the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and maybe the Texas Rangers.
"He's got a fastball, cutter, changeup and curve, and they're all good," says one former MLB hitter who has faced Darvish in interleague play here. "He throws hard, 95 (mph, 153 kph). He's a legitimate MLB pitcher and he'd be the No. 1 starter on a lot of teams."
Darvish certainly didn't hurt his cause on Aug. 25 at Sapporo Dome. Darvish struck out 15 in a complete-game, 114-pitch effort, allowing just one earned run on four hits while walking one. His club lost 2-1 to the Rakuten Eagles, but you certainly can't hang this one on Darvish, who has an ERA of 1.56 and 15 wins this season.
Now in his seventh year as a professional, Darvish has a career ERA of 2.02 and he has already posted 90 wins. He has struck out 1,171 hitters, and has 54 complete games and 17 shutouts under his belt.
The only concern might be that there are a lot of miles on Darvish's right arm. Still, look for the bidding to get up there. The sealed bids will likely not be in the record $51.1 million range the Red Sox bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka's rights in 2006, as Boston's total cash outlay on Dice-K of over $100 million now seems, in retrospect, rather excessive for what the club has gotten in return.
"If the big boys (Yankees, Red Sox) see him as a difference-maker, the (sealed posting) bid could be extreme, maybe in the $15 million to $40 million range," said one American League scout, who also sounded a note of caution. "When you factor in the posting fee, on top of the player's contract, (MLB) teams have overpaid for some Japanese players."
-- Another pitcher who has been getting plenty of attention from overseas scouts is Softbank Hawks starter Tsuyoshi Wada.
A wafer-thin 30-year-old listed at 77 kilograms, Wada may not have the blazing fastball of a Darvish, but he is crafty and he is left-handed. And, perhaps most importantly, he will reach full international free agency status in a few short weeks, meaning he can sign with any team he likes next season, on either side of the Pacific, without the prohibitive posting system coming into play.
Wada, who won 17 games last season, is having another fine year on the bump. So far in 2011, he is 11-4 with 129 strikeouts and a 1.75 ERA. Now in his ninth season, Wada has 102 wins to his credit, all with the Hawks, and he has amassed nearly 1,300 strikeouts in that time.
The National League's Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks have reportedly been the most interested suitors, according to a report in a Japanese sports paper.
-- And, on the subject of southpaws, another lefty who has been on the scouts' radar is Chunichi Dragons' Taiwanese starter Chen Wei-yin, although his stock may have taken a slight hit after his last outing when he left after getting tagged for four runs on five hits-including a home run-in just two innings against the Yakult Swallows at Jingu.
But, that bashing from the Birds aside, Chen has put up some good numbers in his four-plus seasons in Japanese baseball, including his previous start on Aug. 17, when he shut down the Yomiuri Giants in a complete-game gem. That day, Chen faced 28 batters, just one over the minimum, in a two-hit 1-0 shutout, carrying a perfect game into the eighth inning.
Still just 26, Chen found himself caught up in a contractual tug-of-war with the Dragons, which left his status a little murky, to say the least, over the past couple of seasons. It seems Chunichi wanted to treat Chen like a Japanese player-no free-agent status until he'd put in his nine years-while the player argued, and rightfully so, that he was not Japanese so he should not be subject to the rules that apply to Japanese players.
At any rate, it appears as though he'll be free to leave after this season, unless the Dragons extend his one-year deal over the next few months.
Chen is 5-7 this season with a 2.71 ERA, a year after posting 13 wins for Hiromitsu Ochiai's club. Chen whiffed 153 batters in 2010, and he has 494 Ks over his NPB career to go along with a 2.58 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP since he's been in Japan.
He has been prone to niggling injuries over his career.
-- Last offseason, Rakuten right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma requested that the Eagles post him, and the team complied. However, after the small-market Oakland A's threw in the top bid for his services, the parties were unable to come to terms on a contract, and Iwakuma found himself back in Sendai for another season.
This offseason, Iwakuma will be a free agent, free to work out a deal with any club that is interested in him. He fired his agent, Don Nomura, and hired U.S.-based rep Paul Cobbe to help facilitate a move stateside.
But it may take more than that for Iwakuma to secure a sweet deal in MLB. His right shoulder has been bothering him for much of this season and his velocity is down, not a good sign for a 30-year-old who was Japan's best pitcher in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, outpitching both Darvish and Matsuzaka.
Still, without having to deal with a hefty posting fee, someone should roll the dice on Iwakuma. A former 21-game winner, he is 5-3 in 11 starts in 2011 with a 1.96 ERA. His career stats include a 106-65 record, an ERA of 3.25, and 1,147 strikeouts.
-- Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa has made it known for a few years now that he is keen to test himself in the majors. The 31-year-old right-hander may soon get his chance.
Just when is not so certain.
The speculation was that the Tigers would post him this offseason as it would be the club's last chance to nab some posting money before he becomes a full free agent next year. A report in a Japanese sports newspaper, however, recently said Hanshin has decided not to post Fujikawa and will retain his services for another season. Japan's sports papers are not always the most accurate sources of information, but either way we should find out what's going on soon.
Fujikawa's mid-150s rising four-seam fastball has been attracting a lot of attention and a lot of radar guns this year. Since 2007, Fujikawa has saved 46 games, 38, 25, 28, and he has 29 saves already this season.
His career ERA is 1.81 with a 0.97 WHIP. This season, his ERA is 1.23 and his WHIP stands at 0.79.
MLB scouts seem to see him in more of a set-up role in North America. Hopefully he can avoid any pressure-induced meltdowns if he signs with an MLB club, unlike last year in the Central League playoffs, when he came on in the eighth inning to close out a 6-5 game against the archrival Giants at Koshien. After allowing two runs on two hits and four walks, Fujikawa ended up taking the loss. Ouch!
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Editor's note: All stats quoted in this article are through Aug. 25.