Players to Watch For in the NPB-MLB All-Star Series
It’s been a week and a half since Salvador Perez popped out to Pablo Sandoval and brought us into the cold, miserable winter of no baseball. It’s time of year where we have to fill the baseball voids in our minds with stove league talk or other sports like football, basketball, and hockey.
But if you want to, you can still watch live baseball action such as the Arizona Fall League, the Caribbean Winter Leagues, or the recently kicked off Australian Baseball League. And yet another competition will soon be underway in the land of the Far East, as the NPB all-star team takes the field to show the MLB all-stars and the rest of the world their talent in the 5-game series. MLB “all-stars” is a bit of a misnomer, though. You can call some guy with an 81 ERA+ in 34.1 IP an “all-star” if you want to, but I’ll refrain.
As opposed to the ones from the USA, the NPB all-stars don’t fail to live up to their title. Aside from some injury resignations though, they’re the best, top tier players in the NPB. Some of them have MLB upsides, and will earn roster spots within the next few years. In this post, I’ll introduce these future big leaguers.
NPB has already announced their starters in each of the 5 games, as follows:
Game 1: Kenta Maeda, RHP
The 26-year old righty could be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter in the MLB. He goes by “Maeken,” and features a low 90s fastball, slider, change up, curve, and above average command. In 2014, he posted the 3rd best ERA (2.60), 2nd best FIP (2.91), best K/BB ratio (3.93) and BB/9 (1.97). Many thought he was going to be posted this winter, but after the Carp got defeated in the postseason for a second straight year, the chances are getting slimmer. We may have to wait another year to see Maeda pitch in the big leagues.
Game 2: Chihiro Kaneko, RHP
There are very good odds you’ll see Kaneko pitch for an MLB team in 2015. The right hander who just turned 31 is arguably the best pitcher in NPB. His fastball averages around 90 MPH, and touches 95. He’s got various breaking balls, including a curve, shuuto, change up, slider, and splitter. While none of his repertoire is overpowering like Yu Darvish’s slider or Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter, Kaneko locates them exceptionally well. In this past season, Kaneko recorded a microscopic 1.98 ERA and a 2.22 FIP in 191.0 IP, both of which led all NPB among qualified pitchers. Like Maeda, he could be a solid MORP at the MLB level.
Game 3: Takahiro Norimoto, RHP
In his sophomore 2014 season, the 23 year old righty handled his rather tough quest well; replacing Masahiro Tanaka as the ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles. His arsenal is a low-to-mid 90 fastball, slider, change up, curve, and the fork ball. He notched more innings pitched (202.2) and strikeouts than any other Pacific League pitchers with an excellent 204/39 K/BB ratio in 2014. He’ll earn his international free agency as soon as after 2021, which would be his age-30 season.
Game 4: Shintaro Fujinami, RHP
You’ll see him in the big leagues someday. The 20-year old right hander even has a TORP upside. In 2014, his fastball averaged 93 MPH, the second fastest mark among all NPB starters, topped out at 97, and moves well. He mixes a slider, cutter, curve, and splitter from a low 3/4 delivery. He can lose his command from time to time, but when he’s on, he’s absolutely effective, as he posted the best FIP (2.78) among qualified Central League starters in 2014. Like Norimoto, he’s 7 years away from international free agency, so all we can do is to hope Hanshin lets him go earlier via the posting system.
Game 5: Shohei Otani, RHP
I’m certain that the readers of TDG have heard of this 20-year old phenom. He could at least be an MLB back-end rotation guy at this point. His fastball averaged NPB-leading 94 MPH in 2014, up to 101. With that velocity and a nasty slider, splitter, and curve in the arsenal, Otani is unstoppable when he’s on. Like Fujinami, he struggles to locate fairly often and leaves fastballs up. But his ceiling is sky-high. Oh, and did I mention that he also hit .274/.338/.505 with 10 long balls in 234 PA?
In his case, it’s all about when Nippon Ham is going to post him. I’d say he’s 3 to 5 years away.
Position players to watch
Yuki Yanagita, OF
His raw power is by far the best in NPB, except for someone named Wily Mo Pena. The 26-year old outfielder also has the speed to handle the center field and bat-to-ball skill. Yet his best tool is his Puigian bat-flipping ability, as you can see in the GIF below. It would be a major missed chance if they don’t hold a bat-flip off between Yanagita and Puig during the series.
Yoshio Itoi, OF
The most athletic player in recent NPB history, maybe the best ever. The 33-year old outfielder has all 5 tools and plate discipline. Although he’s never topped 20 HR in a season, his raw power is eye-popping. In 2014, Itoi led the Pacific League in batting average and OBP while swiping 31 bases (9 CS) and yanking 19 dingers. I’d love to see how this guy performs at the MLB level.
Tetsuto Yamada, 2B
The 22-year old shortstop had a breakout 2014 season with a .324/.403/.539 slash line, 29 HR, and league-leading 39 doubles in 685 PA. He also possesses plus-plus speed (I clocked 4.08 down the line from the right side) and advanced approach at the plate (74 BB/95 K in 2014). Yamada may be the best 2B in NPB for the years to come.
The glove-first 25-year old catcher hit .255/.305/.373 in 121 PA in his rookie 2014 season.
Another glove-first 25-year old backstop.
This guy’s bat is better than Kobayashi and Ito, but not substantially. Good receiver with tremendous makeup.
Kenta Imamiya, SS
22-year old shortstop, classic 2-hole guy. Laid down 62 sacrifice bunts in each of the past 2 seasons. That’s a lot!
Nobuhiro Matsuda, 3B
Right-handed slugging third baseman. The most intriguing part of his game is his trademark one-foot leap every time after he hits a foul.
Ryosuke Kikuchi, 2B
Best defensive second baseman in the league. Flashes exceptional range at the position. Offensive side of his game caught up to his glove, as he hit .325/.352/.456 and, of course, 43 sac bunts in 654 PA.
Hayato Sakamoto, SS
The poorest man of Derek Jeter, that’s whom I think Sakamoto is. Young, good looking shortstop who can hit and is mediocre at defense. At the age of 25, he’s already had 7 full seasons in his career. Although being popular in Japan, he’ll never be able to hit MLB pitching and, oh, he’d make Kaz Matsui look like Ozzie Smith with the glove.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, 1B/3B
The 22-year old slugger has been known for his raw power from the left side since his high school years. He finally caught up to some of his potential in 2014, slashing .300/.373/.529 while crabbing 22 dingers in 461 PA.
Ginji Akaminai, 1B
He doesn’t have over-the-fence power, but can hit for average. His .327 average was the 2nd highest mark among qualified batters in the Pacific League in 2014.
Many people regard him as the best right-handed hitter in NPB. Though there’s only a slight chance he’ll ever play for an MLB team.
He can hit for power, has hit 79 HR over the past 3 years. He’s also got a cannon for an arm, and seen as the best defensive left fielder in the league.
Gap hitter with the wheels and plate discipline. He’s notched 55 doubles, 33 HR, 185/198 BB/K in 1245 PA over the past 2 seasons combined.
Shoichi Ino, RHP
He’s an useful MORP at the NPB level, but it’s hard to see him succeed in MLB.
Kazuhisa Makita, RHP
Throws from a Chad Bradford-esque submariner delivery. Unlike Bradford, he’s a starter.
Shota Takeda, RHP
He could be the next Kaneko or Maeda. In his 3-year career, the 21-year old hurler has posted a 2.35 ERA, 166/116 K/BB ratio, given up 155 hits, including only 5 HR over 2.35 innings. Takeda features a low-mid 90s fastball, curve, slider, and change up. He’s worth keeping an eye on.
Tomomi Takahashi, LHP
In his sophomore 2014 season, the southpaw notched 29 saves and struck out 80 batters while walking just 24 in 62.2 innings.
Yuki Nishi, RHP
The 24-year old righty slowed down after an 8-game winning streak to start the 2014 season, but had a respectable 3.30 FIP , 3.29 ERA, a .251/.301/.367 opposing line in 156.0 IP.
Yuji Nishino, RHP
The lone Chiba Lotte Marine to make the national team. In 2014, the 23-year old righty enjoyed his first season as a closer, piled up 31 saves while posting a 4.20 K/BB ratio and 2.57 in 58.0 innings. His fork ball is a bat-misser as he struck out 28.8% of batters he faced. Nishino recently mentioned his desire to play in MLB.
Minoru Iwata, LHP
In 2014, he was a huge part of Hanshin’s rotation after Randy Messenger and Shintaro Fujinami. Has had type 1 diabetes since when he was 11th grade.
Takahiro Matsuba, LHP
Crafty lefty . Could be a TORP at the NPB level, but nothing more than that.
Stats courtesy of NulData