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International Free Agent Profile: Takashi Toritani, Shortstop

Shortstop Takashi Toritani is one of a few international free agents who might make some sense for the Mets in 2013.

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Takashi Toritani, who turns 32 in June, is expected to test international waters now that he is an international free agent. In 144 games this year, the shortstop hit .262/.375/.373, down from his 2011 batting line of .300/.395/.414 but still mostly in line with his career batting line of .285/.362/.416.

Unlike Hiroyuki Nakajima, the new baseball used in Nippon Professional Baseball seems to have sapped a lot of Toritani’s power. Talking about the possibility of him coming to the United States, a National League scout said, "he's patient, he has some plate vision, but I don't see him stinging the ball like he used to. The ball doesn't jump off his bat like it did three or four years ago…and in my opinion his bat speed is falling off a little bit."

His stats over the last five years are as follows:

2008 144 .281 .365 .411 13 4 7
2009 144 .288 .368 .465 20 7 7
2010 144 .301 .373 .475 19 13 3
2011 144 .300 .395 .414 5 16 3
2012 144 .262 .375 .373 8 15 4

The drop in power is alarming, and the change of the regulation NPB baseball seems to be the most obvious reason. This may not or may not be something of concern going forward in Major League Baseball. The new ball brought Norichika Aoki’s slugging percentage down to a paltry .360 after it hovered around .500 for most of his career, and he still had a fine season with the Brewers after making the switch to MLB this year. The same may or may not happen to Toritani.

While Toritani’s batting average has been up and down over his career, his on-base ability has progressively gotten better, regardless of which version of the baseball was in use. He has an exceptional eye, which isn’t common in MLB or NPB, and has walked more often than he has struck out in each of the past two seasons. While he’s naturally speedy, Totitani hasn’t been much of a base stealer, but he has attempted to steal more often over the years, and he’s become more efficient in the process.

Like Nakajima, Toritani is a shortstop by trade. He also has experience at third base, having played there for the majority of his rookie season. As a shortstop, he is the owner of two Mitsui Golden Glove Awards, which he won in 2010 and 2011, and he has a shot at his third for his 2012 season.

As was the case with Nakajima, a lack of data makes it hard to tell if the award was justified or not, but the scouts seem to agree that Toritani is a plus fielder. His already strong arm — believed by some to be the best among contemporary shortstops — is augmented by his speed, allowing him to cover a lot of ground and gun down runners. He does, however, have a tendency to make throwing errors. Like other shortstops coming over from Japan, doubts will always linger about the fielding aspects of the position, regardless of how good or bad the player has been. An NL scout doubts that Toritani will stay at short if he comes to MLB: "I think he's a good player; he's solid…If an MLB team does decide to take him, I don't know if he'll be used as a shortstop. Maybe second base, maybe elsewhere."

Does He Make Sense For The Mets?

Like Nakajima, Toritani is blocked at his natural position by incumbent shortstop Ruben Tejada. He also has some experience at third base, in the event that David Wright is traded. Though both are natural middle infielders and have only remedial experience at the hot corner, Toritani’s natural tools seem better suited at third than Nakajima’s. Takashi has a very strong throwing arm, and his speed gives him a lot of range. He regularly made plays as a shortstop from deep in the hole, plays that would be much easier and straightforward as a third baseman.

In theory, because of his athleticism and his strong arm, he could be moved to one of the corner outfield spots. I would be wary of that, as the additional pressure of learning a new position and learning an entire new country might simply be too much. Given that he profiles similarly as Nakajima, I would expect him to be given a similar contract. Though Toritani has stats that are, overall, not as good as Nakajima’s, his biggest assets are likely completely translatable to the big league: speed and endurance. For the sixth straight season, the shortstop played all 144 games. Toritani doesn’t have the possible stigma of refusing to come to terms with a team because of financial or playing-time issues, like Nakajima might, either. As a result of those factors, he probably can make two or three million dollars, a reasonable sum.