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2015 NPB Prospect Rankings, Nos. 6-15

Here I continue counting up my rankings further more. If you missed last week, here are top 5.

6) Yoshio Itoi, OF, Orix Buffaloes (Age 33)

I have no doubt that he has all the tools that would play well at the MLB level: raw power that stands out among Japanese hitters, bat-to-ball skill (he’s never had an average below .300 in 6 full seasons), speed that makes him a threat on the basepaths (has stolen at least 22 bases in each of the past 6 years) and gives him a wide range in right field ,and a cannon for an arm. He also has an advanced approach at the plate, as his career BB% stands at 10.8. With that skill set, he could be a 10-20 outfielder with a 270-280 average in MLB. The problem is that the sands of time for him are running low.

The Kinki University product turns 34 at the end of July, and is still 3 years from international free agency. There’s a chance for the Buffaloes posing him, but I’d say it’s no better than 50-50. He’s also dealt with injuries to both knees recently, which could kill his speed. Still, his tools and athleticism are too good to not dream on.

7) Hayato Sakamoto, SS, Yomiuri Giants (Age: 26)

Being a regular since his age 19-season, Sakamoto is still 26 and just 2 years from international free agency. With Takashi Toritani staying with Hanshin for the next 4 years (and almost certainly for his career), Sakamoto is the only bat-oriented middle infielder in NPB who is close to testing the international market.

The Itami, Hyogo native has hit .281/.334/.430 with 115 long balls in 4365 PA in his career. He’s also gone 101-124 in stolen base attempts. UZR has him the best shortstop in the Central League in the last 3 years, though his defense looks below-average in naked eye. He doesn’t have a strong enough arm to handle the position at the highest level, so if he ever comes over to the big leagues, a move to the other side of middle infield would be inevitable. Another selling point about him is durability; since he became a regular player, he’s missed only 3 games and played in every regular season game since 2010.

In the best case scenario, he could be a 10-10, .250 or so average second baseman, but there’s also a decent chance for him to be the second coming of Hiroyuki Nakajima.

8) Yoshihisa HIrano, RHP, Orix Buffaloes, (Age: 31)[youtube]

Hirano was set to hit the market this winter before the buffaloes gave him a 3-year extension and made him their property for 2016 and 2017. He’s established himself as arguably the best closer in NPB. notched 31 and 40 saves in the past 2 seasons respectively. The righty throws a fastball in low 90s, touches 96 and a splitter/fork that can miss bats with exceptional command, as his K/BB ratios haven’t gone lower than 5 in the last 4 years, including an astronomical 16.00 in 2012. With that, he could be a 8th or maybe even 9th inning guy in the big leagues.

We may have to wait 3 more years to see him in the majors, nevertheless, there’s a hope for him getting posted.

9) Masahiko Morifuku, LHP, Softbank Hawks (Age 28)

It is obvious that his role in the big league would be limited to a LOOGY, as his Javier Lopez-esque delivery suggests. The 5’7″, 143 lbs lefty recorded an .170 opposing average and 33/2 K/BB against 105 LH faced and .246 and 14/12 against 81 RH he faced last year. Even with a limited role, he has good odds to become a big league bullpen piece and notch some holds in 3 years, when Morifuku is set to earn international free agency.

10) Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Seibu Lions, (Age 23)

Kikuchi could have been pitching in the big leagues by now had he forgone NPB to sign with an MLB club directly out of high school. After signing with the Lions, Kikuchi has battled with a series of shoulder injuries and command problems, posted a mediocre 1.83 K/BB (284/155) in 383.1 IP over parts of 4 seasons. His career ERA is a respectable 3.08, though it’s hard to say he’s exceeded his expectations.

The reasons why I have him this high is his still relatively young age and potential. Once he fixes his issues and regains the velocity (he once hit 97 from the left side), he might be something.

11) Tetsuto Yamada, 2B, Yakult Swallows (Age: 22)

The 22-year old infielder may posses the best future MLB upside among Japanese position players. He enjoyed a breakout 2014 campaign – .324/.403/.539 with 29 dingers, lead-leading 193 hits in 685 PA while swiping 15 bases in 20 tries in his first full season. Maybe some of the dingers were thanks to Jingu Stadium, the Swallows’ home park that makes Yankee Stadium look like the Serengeti National Park, but his bat-to-ball skill, plus speed, and advanced discipline aren’t doubtful. The glove that forced to move him from SS to 2B might be a problem on the way, but he can be good enough defensively to handle the position. Yamada needs 7 more seasons in NPB to test the market, Yakult has had history of posting their star players like Kazuhisa Ishii and Nori Aoki.

12) Shun Yamaguchi, RHP, Yokohama DeNA Baystars (Age 27)

The 27-year old righty has a blazing fastball that touches 97 MPH and a bat-missing splitter. Yamaguchi has been starting since June last year, but his future as a big leaguer belongs in back-end of the bullpen.

There’s a chance you’ll see him hanging around in Florida or Arizona this time next year. Yamaguchi is 3 years from international free agency. However, if he asks for posting to realize his dream, the Baystars might sell him to an MLB club for an amount of cash.
13 Dai-Kang Yang, OF, Nippon Ham Fighters (Age 28)

The Taiwanese-native (literally, he’s from the Amis) has the athleticism to play at the MLB level. His over-the-fence power has improved dramatically over the past couple of years, gone from 7 HR in 2012 to 18 to 25 in 2014. The knee injury he had last year may slow him down, but the speed (47 SB 2 seasons ago) is enough to handle center field. Rumors say the Fighters will post Yang before becomes an international FA after 2017. If it indeed happens, he could be an RH platoon bat or probably a second division starter.

14) Sho Nakata, OF/1B, Nippon Ham Fighters (Age 25)

Yang’s colleague has above-average raw power, part of it has been translated into in-game fashion. He also has plus arm that clocked mid-90s off mound in high school. On the other hand, he’s struggled with contact ability as well as poor poor approach at the plate, hit sub-.270 in 3 of 4 full seasons and had a pedestrian 106/364 career BB/K ratio. He’s shown interest in playing in the bigs, though unless there’s a drastic turn-around with his bat-to-ball skill, he’s who he is and it is hard to imagine him securing a roster spot on a major league team.

15) Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP, Tomoyuki Sugano (Age: 25) 

Another solid arm from the 2012 draft class that produced Shohei Otani, Shintaro Fujinami, and Takahiro Norimoto. The Tokai University product was named the Central League’s MVP with lots of doubts last year. Featuring upper 80-low 90s FB with various breaking balls and excellent command, Sugano’s upside is an MLB mid-back end starter. With Yomiuri not allowing their players to be posted, he has to wait until after 2022, his age-31 season.

The Author

Kazuto Yamazaki

Kazuto Yamazaki


  1. April 5, 2015 at 10:07 am

    […] This is the 3rd and final piece of my 3-part NPB prospect rankings for the 2015 season. Most of guys in this tier are 6-8 years away from producing at the MLB level, or even some of them will never come over to the States. A post about these players may seem overly obsessive,  but as far as there are chances for them to be big league assets, learning about them is never a bad thing. In case you missed, here are rankings 1-5 and 16-30. […]

  2. […] introduced 30 best NPB players who have chances to play in the big leagues in the near or distant future. In this post […]

  3. December 4, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Very cool.

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