2015 NPB Prospect Rankings, Nos. 1-5
Congratulations on surviving another off-season. We’re just over a couple of weeks away from the new season. And better yet, NPB opening day is a mere 5 days away.
Here at TDG, I ranked 30 NPB players to watch for for the coming season. The rankings are based on 1) their potential MLB upsides and age, and 2) how far away from/ how likely to be producing at the MLB level. Generally, NPB pitchers have better shots at being significant contributors than batters. In fact, there have been only 2 Japanese position players with a career bWAR of 10.0 or better, compared to 8 pitches cleared that threshold. Consequently, the list is loaded with pitchers.
Without further ado, I’m kicking off the rankings with five right-handed hurlers.
1) Kenta Maeda, RHP, Hiroshima Carp (Age 26)
Since Masahiro Tanaka’s departure to the Stateside, Maeda has been arguably the best pitcher in the NPB. The right-hander will turn 27 shortly after opening day (on April 12th). Featuring a fastball that touches 95 and 3 above average to plus pitches in a slider, curve, and change up with exceptional command, he could be a No. 3 starter on most MLB teams as of this moment. Think a younger Hisashi Iwakuma and you get Kenta Maeda. Since his 2009, he hasn’t recorded a K/BB ratio worse than 3.78, and has tossed at least 175 innings.
Now, when is his expected arrival time at the big leagues? Maeda is scheduled to hit international free agency after 2017, his age-29 season. What about the possibility of him being posted.? The Carp have posted 3 players. However, these 3 players are Alejandro Quezada, Timo Perez, and Ramon Ramirez. So, Maeda might need to earn Dominican Republic residency to get posted. Though Hiroshima states that they’d allow the PL Gakuen product to test the market after 2015 if both Maeda and the team perform better than they did in 2014. Dynasty Owners may root for the Carp’s triumph this year.
2) Shohei Otani, RHP/OF, Nippon Ham Fighters (Age 20)
You’ve heard this name that reminds you of a former SNL cast. Otani is the most heralded and talented player in the NPB. The right hander/outfielder struck out 179, walked 57, held the opposing hitters to a .223/.299/.318 line, recorded the 2nd best FIP among qualified starters (2.58) in 155.1 innings while hitting .274/.338/.505 with 10 long balls in 234 PA at the plate in his age-19 season.
With a blazing heater that averages 95 MPH, tops out at 101 and devastating splitter and slider, Otani has the potential to be a top 5 MLB starter in his heyday. Nevertheless, like most other 20-year old pitching prospects, he still has weaknesses. Despite the premium velocity, he lacks the ability to get whiffs on his fastballs. Even the pitch he tied an NPB record, 101 MPH, resulted in a ground out. Additionally, he can lose his command and lead to a big inning from time to time. Though at the age of 20, he has the room to improve in these areas.
His bat might make him the best hitting pitcher since Micah Owings, but not good enough for a significant contribution at the highest level.
Otani is set to hit international free agency after the 2021 season, but my assumption is that he’ll head to the majors before that via the posting system. I’d say Nippon Ham will keep him at least 3 more seasons and no more than 5.
3) Shintaro Fujinami, RHP, Hanshin Tigers (Age 20)
In my opinion, Otani and Fujinami are the only NPB prospects who could be top-of-the-rotation starters at the MLB level. Of the two, Fujinami may posses the higher upside. Fujinami’s fastball is a couple of ticks slower than Otani’s, averages at 93 MPH, but it has more moves and life. He mixes it with an arsenal of various pitches; slider, curve, cutter, splitter. Despite advanced feel for pitching, Fujinami struggles to repeat mechanics and locate at times.
Like Otani, Fujinami is expected to be an international free agent after 2021. I’m not sure about the likeliness of Hanshin posting him, but if the soon-to-be 21 years old becomes the best pitcher in the NPB and the Tigers clinch a Japan Series title, they might let him go early. Though, keep in mind, the only player Hanshin has posted was an utter disaster in the MLB.
4) Takayuki Kishi, RHP, Seibu Lions (Age 30)
His ceiling is much lower than the two guys above, but Kishi is closer to being an MLB asset. The Tohoku Gakuin University product hasn’t shown interest in pitching in the U.S. yet. If he does by the end of 2016, when his current 3-year contract with Seibu expires, some MLB teams would try to grab him. Kishi is supposed to earn international free agency at the end of the 2015 season.
Through out his career, Kishi has shown good command, as his career K/BB sits at 3.20 (1048/328) in 1280.1 innings. He’s not a hard thrower, as his fastball sits around 90 MPH, mixes a curve, slider, and change up. I think he’ could be a back end starter in the big leagues.
5) Takahiro Norimoto, RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles (Age 24)
Another blast from the loaded 2012 draft class which produced Otani and Fujinami. Norimoto was drafted out of college, so he’s 4 years older than the aforementioned two (college juniors aren’t draft eligible under the NPB rules).
When I saw Norimoto in his penultimate collegiate game in November 2012, I thought he would be a decent NPB No.2. My opinion on him has changed since then, only in a better way. In 2 years in the NPB, the righty has been really brilliant, replaced Masahiro Tanaka as the Golden Eagles’ ace, posted a 3.16 ERA, given up 329 hits, 28 home runs, punched out 338 while walking 90 in 372.2 innings. His K/BB in 2014 was an out standing 5.23. In game 3 of the NPB-MLB series in last November, Norimoto tossed 5 perfect innings in order to became a part of a combined no-no.
Norimoto’s fastball sits at a tad below 90, can touch 94 MPH. He throws a slider, splitter, and change up at his disposal, each pitch flashes an average-to-plus potential.
He’s at least 7 years away from international free agency. However, Rakuten has twice posted their aces (Tanaka and Iwakuma) in its 10-year franchise history. So there’s a chance Norimoto hitting the market before that.