International Free Agent 2013 Recap and Look Ahead: Part I, Japan

Koji Watanabe

The international market is a regular source of prospect, rookie, and veteran baseball talent. What players might become available next off-season?

Over the past few months, I examined various Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese baseball players — as well as former MLB players plying their trade in those countries — who were eligible to be posted by their team to play in North America, were international free agents and the masters of their own fate, or rookies who had yet to sign with a professional team but had their eyes on America. Some were bright-eyed youngsters just starting their professional baseball careers, while others were wily veterans looking for one last hurrah. In the end, some of the players profiled successfully made it to America, while others did not:

The process happens every year like clockwork. Since Hideo Nomo’s debut in MLB, more and more Asian players have come to America to play ball. Some have become bona fide legends and will someday have their own plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Many were All-Star or solid complementary players. A great many flamed out, too.

Regardless, whereas Asian players were non-existent in MLB for decades, they are becoming more and more common. In 2010, according to Major League Baseball’s Race and Gender Report Card, 2.1% of players were Asian, and the number of Asian players over the last decade has stayed relatively constant, at nearly 30 individuals.

Changes to the posting system are currently being discussed between MLB and NPB. The most notable change being discussed includes changing the blind bidding system to a traditional open auction, most notably. From a non-involved party, this would seem to be something that MLB clubs might want, but I don’t see NPB clubs agreeing without MLB concessions elsewhere. Open auctions would limit the amount of money the Japanese organization would make for giving up their player. Such changes might put a damper on things, but the beat will go on. Looking to the future, the 2013-2014 off-season will bring more prospective players from Asia, Korea, and Taiwan, as well as a return of more familiar faces that have been playing in those countries. Here are a few names to be aware of and keep track of during the 2013 baseball season in Japan and Korea:

JAPAN

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Yoshio Itoi (RF)

Formerly of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Yoshio Itoi is a 31-year-old (who will turn 32 in July) outfielder recently traded to the Orix Buffaloes. He bats lefty, throws righty, and primarily plays right field. He is a four time All-Star (2009-2012) and has collected various awards over the course of his career: three 2009, 2011, and 2012 Best Nine: Outfield Awards (2009, 2011, 2012) and four Mitsui Golden Glove Awards (2009-2012). His stats over the last five years are as follows:

Year Age G AB AVG OBP SLG HR K BB SB CS
2008 26 63 188 .239 .285 .404 5 53 10 13 3
2009 27 131 425 .306 .381 .520 15 93 46 24 6
2010 28 138 488 .309 .407 .482 15 94 71 26 8
2011 29 137 489 .319 .411 .448 11 91 59 31 6
2012 30 134 510 .304 .404 .410 9 86 75 22 9

Early in January, he informed Nippon Ham Fighter management that he wanted to be posted, the sooner the better. Because he was older when he began his baseball career, Itoi is not eligible to earn his international free agent status until 2017 at the earliest. Because he has an eye on MLB and knows that there is basically a zero percent chance that any team is willing to give a 38-year-old rookie a shot, he wanted to go sooner than later.

Not long afterwards, the Fighters traded the outfielder to Orix as part of a five-man trade. Nippon Ham enforces a policy where they do not force a player to stay with them: if they request trades, or request to be posted, the organization complies. Management, understanding he wants to play in North America in 2014, saw a trade as the best way to recoup the loss of his presence, instead of collecting the monetary fee for his posting. Complicating things are the Orix Buffaloes, who might not be willing to lose their all-star caliber outfielder for a few million dollars through the posting system. According to Sports Hochi News, two different team officials have implied that Orix will not post Itoi during the 2013-2014 off-season, or perhaps ever. One official was more diplomatic and said, "We need to sit down and talk to [Itoi], but we first want him to work hard to reach the top with our team. We also do not think he will [ask to be posted] after his first year", while the other said more matter-of-factly, "There is nothing in his contract that says we have to post him. Even if he wants to be posted, there is no way the organization will approve after the first year."

According to Sponichi News, the Texas Rangers were interested in making a bid for Itoi. The newspaper estimated that his posting fee would likely be around $15 million dollars, and that his contract would likely extend for another $15 million dollars, over a few years. Itoi will be playing for Samurai Japan in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and perhaps his future will be better gleaned depending on his performance and notoriety there.

Itoi reminds me of a lot of Angel Pagan: both he and Crazy Horse got a late start (especially Itoi, as in Japan players sometime becomes regulars as early as 18), but have become very dependable outfielders since being given a chance. Both are very good defensive outfielders, have moderate power (10-15 HR potential), and moderate speed (20-30 SB potential). What stands out most about Itoi is his on-base percentage. Since becoming a full-time player in 2009, Itoi has a cumulative OBP of .401. This is considerably higher than the rest of the Pacific League

Year League Itoi
2009 .334 .381
2010 .336 .407
2011 .308 .411
2012 .311 .404

Kenta Maeda (SP)

Kenta Maeda is right-handed starting pitcher for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. In his second start for the 2012, Maeda no-hit the Yokohama DeNA BayStars and set the tone for his season. His utter dominance was not to be unexpected, as Hiroshima’s first-round draftee has been among the elite pitchers in Japan since his debut in 2010, when he had a break-out year. Maeda is a three-time All-Star (2010-2012), and in 2010 won the Best Nine: Pitcher Award and the Eiji Sawamura Award as well.

Maeda throws from a high ¾ delivery, and has a repertoire that consists of a four-seam fastball that sits about 90 MPH and tops out in the mid 90s, an average change-up with about a 10 MPH differential, an average slider, and periodically mixed in a curveball and shuuto. He has Cliff Lee control, walking 1.9 batters per nine innings over the course of 940.2 innings. His stats over the last five years are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2008 20 3.20 4.34 109.2 4.5 2.9 8.5 0.8
2009 21 3.36 3.61 193.0 6.9 1.4 9.0 1.0
2010 22 2.21 3.13 215.2 7.3 1.9 6.9 0.6
2011 23 2.46 2.86 216.0 8.0 1.8 7.4 0.6
2012 24 1.53 2.56 206.1 7.5 1.9 7.0 0.3

Youtube user lemon castella uploaded this video of Maeda pitching:

Something to keep note of is Maeda’s HR rate. Maeda has been very home run prone over the course of his career. In 2009, his 22 home runs allowed were almost ten more than any other Carp starter. The offense-dampening ball introduced in 2011 helped bring down his HR rate, but in the offense-rich MLB, his propensity to give up the long ball might be a red flag. His sub-2 BB/9 rate will almost surely rise, exposing more flaws in his game.

Though wishy-washing earlier in his career, in early January, Maeda was interviewed by Sports Hochi News, and he let drop the fact that he will be using the WBC to gauge his interest in playing in the major leagues. "I only know Japanese baseball", he said. "I might enjoy facing MLB players at MLB stadiums, or I might not. I am interested in seeing how [Japanese] pitchers adjust [to the Majors]. There are more opportunities for me to see that. ... It would be nice if I can expand my world with the WBC. It is all experience. It will depend on how I am feeling after it is all done".

The timing of this is interesting, because Maeda had differences with the Carp in terms of financial compensation for 2013. Though he was initially offered a ¥200 million yen ($2.4 million dollars as of the exchange rate at the time of this writing) contract offer for 2013, which represented a ¥50 million yen raise from 2012, Kenta believed that he was worth more than that, based on his 2012 season, where he was debatably the best starting pitcher in all of NPB. The Carp, it seems, were purposefully using an evaluation system that stressed factors that Maeda was weaker in in 2012. After a second round of negotiations, the two sides agreed upon a ¥210 million yen salary for 2013. What is relevant about the exchange is that it could signal the beginning of the end for Maeda in NPB. If this becomes a regular occurrence, the young right-hander could start fighting with his team and be vocal in his wanting to be elsewhere, where he will be paid in accordance with his talent. If Maeda begins making too much money for the small-revenue Carp to be able to afford, a trade to another NPB team or posting to recoup the theoretical loss of not being able to afford him might be in the future. Given his age, playing MLB baseball in 2014 is highly unlikely, but as more time passes, the more distinct a possibility it becomes.

Masahiro Tanaka (SP)

An ace high school pitcher who broke Daisuke Matsuzaka’s high school strikeout record (458 to Matsuzaka’s 423), Masahiro Tanaka was selected in the first round by four teams in the 2006 NPB draft, and was signed by the team that won the lottery for his bargaining rights, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Known as the top pitching prospect in Japan, Tanaka has more than lived up to the lofty title. The young righty won the 2007 Pacific League Rookie of the Year, is a six-time All-Star (2007-2012), won the Best Nine: Pitcher Award in 2011, and won the Eiji Sawamura Award in 2011.

Tanaka throws from a high ¾ delivery, and has a repertoire that consists of a four-seam fastball that sits in the low 90s and tops out in the mid 90s, a slider with a sharp break, a forkball/splitter, and a two-seam fastball that sits in the high 80s and tops out in the low 90s. He also periodically mixes in a curveball and a change-up. The only part of his game that might pose problematic is ability to stop the running game; he is generally at the top of stolen bases allowed lists. His stats over the last five years are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2008 19 3.49 2.97 172.2 8.3 2.8 8.9 0.5
2009 20 2.33 2.97 189.2 8.1 2.0 8.1 0.6
2010 21 2.50 3.04 155.0 6.9 1.9 9.2 0.5
2011 22 1.27 1.89 226.1 9.6 1.1 6.8 0.3
2012 23 1.87 1.88 173.0 8.8 1.0 8.3 0.2

Youtube user natsnation37 uploaded this video of Tanaka pitching:

Not that it’s going to turn him into a pumpkin, but Tanaka’s HR/9 rate will rise considerably; there way that he maintains a sub-0.30 HR/9 rate in MLB, where the offensive environment is much stronger. Nor will he be able to maintain that absurdly low BB/9, as past research has indicated.

Another thing to be aware of is that, while he has never suffered from particularly major injuries, he has had his share of niggling little problems. In 2008, he missed starts because of shoulder inflammation. In 2009, he was shut down near the beginning of the season because of a shoulder strain. In 2010, he missed over two months because of a pectoral muscle tear.

After signing a ¥1.2 billion yen ($13.2 million dollars as of the exchange rate at the time of this writing), three-year extension, Masahiro said at a press conference that he let the organization know of his wishes to be posted and play in MLB. "I told the organization I have an interest in playing in the Majors at some point in the future…I developed an interest in playing in the Majors at some point in the future, so I thought it would be good to let the organization know at an early time. That just happened to be this year. I finished my sixth season and when I see people close to my age making it, it made me want to give it a try myself…I am thankful to the organization for thinking so highly of me by offering me a big deal. I was happily able to sign the papers. ... I do not have a specific timetable [for when he would like to play baseball in America], but I would like to go at some point". The Golden Eagles promised to sit down with the young righty at the end of the season to discuss the possibility of being posted. Their official response was, "We cannot stop players from chasing their dreams or taking on new challenges". Though the organization certainly would be paid well for losing him, I personally do not know if they would be comfortable enough to let him go, though. A team that is perennially near the bottom of the W/L column having lost two stars, record holders, and important members of their team in recent years- Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka- the situation should sound very familiar to us Mets fans. Despite the return (or lack thereof), majority of us were disappointed and disenfranchised to lose Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey in back-to-back seasons; fans of the Golden Eagles would likely be just as disappointed and disenfranchised- perhaps even moreso, as any return for Tanaka’s posting would simply be money, and not prospects or any other hope for the future of the club.

According to Sponichi News, numerous MLB teams are interested in Tanaka and have been keeping tabs on him. The list includes, but presumably is not limited to, the Yankees, the Rangers, the Orioles, the Giants, and the Dodgers. While Tanaka does not necessarily have the ‘notoriety’ of Yu Darvish, he certainly is a pitcher who throws at that level. As such, if posted, expect a posting fee and contract to be very similar to Darvish’s- expensive.

Takashi Toritani (SS)

Profiled back in October, Takashi Toritani decided to not pursue North American baseball, and chose to stay with his team, the Hanshin Tigers, where he will once again be team captain. For the season, he will be making ¥280 yen ($3.3 million dollars as of the exchange rate at the time of this writing), less money than he made in 2012. According to Sponichi News, Toritani may have decided to stay with Hanshin despite all of this because of loyalty- not only did the Tigers have a poor 2012 season, but it also lost three other important players- Kyuji Fujikawa left Japan for MLB, and Tomoaki Kanemoto and former Mariner catcher Kenji Jojima both retired.

Toritani will be playing for Samurai Japan during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. His performance on the international stage, coupled with his 2013 NPB performance, certainly will have an impact on what he does with his future.

Yao-Hsun Yang (SP)

Currently a starting pitcher for the Fukokua SoftBank Hawks, Yao-Hsun Yang was a star athlete at Chinese Cultural University as a teen. The lefty’s decision to bypass playing in Taiwan caused some derision among the island’s media talking heads, but fences were quickly mended when it turned out that Sadaharu Oh, who is Chinese, would be his manager, when he signed with the Hawks. A combination of factors have contributed to his not living up to the potential he showed as a youth.

Yang throws four pitches- a fastball, slider, curveball, and change-up. His fastball sits in the low-90s, and peaks in the low-90s. The slider, his primary out pitch, is his only plus off-speed pitch. The curveball and change-up are both serviceable, but are exceptionally polished, and as such, are not used very frequently, especially the curveball. As his feel for the pitch has grown, Yao-Hsun Yang has thrown his slider more and more frequently. Last season, he threw it 34.8% of the time, up from 29% in 2010 and 25.9% in 2009. In addition to his other off-speed pitches being thrown less often in favor of the slider, he has thrown his fastball less and less as well. In 2012, he threw it only 48% of the time, down from 54.1% in 2010 and 59.8% in 2009. His stats over the last give years are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2008 25 17.18 4.03 3.2 7.4 7.4 12.3 0.0
2009 26 6.52 2.99 9.2 9.4 5.6 11.2 0.0
2010 27 2.20 3.94 32.2 7.7 5.0 9.1 0.6
2011 28 Minors <---> Minors <---> Minors <---> Minors
2012 29 1.38 2.66 42.2 9.5 3.8 5.1 0.2

Youtube user 204712001 uploaded this video of Yang pitching:

Looking at the Taiwanese lefty, the lack of innings pitched immediately jumps out. Though a starter, Yang has never pitched even 50 innings "in the majors", let along the 200 or so you would want a quality starter to throw. He has a history of shoulder injuries, cutting into his playing time in 2005, 2007, so that is obviously some cause for concern. Transitioning to a relief role, the most likely outcome if he came to America, would smooth some of those problems. Were he to become a LOOGY, or something slightly more, a 30-40 inning workload profiles works out well.

According to Sanspo News, Yang fired his former agent in the middle of January, and hired Scott Boras to represent him. Because players in Japan make such little money as compared to their American counterparts, and because the team generally has more leverage than the player, whenever Boras’ name comes up, it generally has to do with matters unrelated to pay. Sure enough, the Taiwanese pitcher was threatening to sit out until a clause was inserted into his contract that would grant him international free agent status. SoftBank caved, agreed to the lefty’s demands, and inserted the clause into his contract, all but guaranteeing that Yang comes to MLB in some capacity next season if some team would have him. He will be playing in the 2013 WBC, so his performance on the international stage might influence his market, but it is unlikely to influence his eventual decision- why play hard ball if you have no intention of doing what you fought to be given? So far, in the 2013 WBC invitational tournament, Yang is has faced 17 batters (New Zealand) in 4 innings, and has given up no earned runs, two hits, two walks, and struck four out.

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