This season there are a few NPB players who have fulfilled the requirements for international free agency (meaning they are free to negotiate with any team, domestic or abroad) and may attempt to follow in the successful footsteps of Yu Darvish and Norichika Aoki and make a move to the major leagues next year.
Among them, three stand out: Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani and Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters second baseman Kensuke Tanaka is also rumored to be considering the move, but recently suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
Nakajima is probably the star of the bunch. The 30-year-old was posted last year, but had to return for another season in Tokorozawa after negotiations with the New York Yankees fell through. He is expected to test MLB waters again this year.
“I think he’s a good player; I don’t think he’s a shortstop in the big leagues,” said one major league scout who has made many trips to Asia. “He can probably play there from time to time, maybe for a team that’s struggling. I think his best value is probably as a utility guy, playing third, short, second, and probably seeing most of his time at second base.”
A National League scout had a similar outlook.
“I think he’s a very solid player; good defense,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s going to be an everyday player in America. Maybe a platoon guy, maybe at second base, but if somebody goes down, I’m sure he’ll rise to the occasion.”
He also likes Nakajima’s attitude.
“His persona is really nice,” the scout remarked. “In a West Coast city, or an East Coast city where there’s a large concentration of Japanese-Americans, I think he would be very popular.
Even if he goes (somewhere like) Chicago or Atlanta, I’m sure he would be very popular with the local fans because of his personality.”
Nakajima is a career .304 hitter with 162 home runs, 733 RBIs and 140 stolen bases. The Hyogo Prefecture native is in his 11th season with the Lions and has a .848 on-base plus slugging percentage and a .172 isolated power average.
Nakajima is one of the few players to not experience a severe drop from 2010 to 2011, when NPB’s switch to a standardized ball had an adverse affect on offense. He posted a .314/.385/.511 line with 20 home runs and 93 RBIs in 2010 and .297/.354/.433 with 16 homers and a career-high 100 RBIs in 2011, while also stealing 21 bases.
If this is Nakajima’s final year in Japan, he’s poised to go out with a bang. He’s a Pacific League MVP candidate with an NPB-best .330 average, 13 home runs and 69 RBIs, and has fueled Seibu’s drive from last to first in the standings.
“He’s definitely one of the better players here,” said former Dodgers and current Yomiuri Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton. “I think he’s one of the best shortstops here. We might have the best in (Hayato) Sakamoto, but I think he’s up there. He’s kind of a bigger guy; got a little bit of pop. If he wants to go, I think he’ll definitely have an opportunity. I think some team would love to have him.”
Nakajima stands 180 cm, weighs in at 90 kg and is a two-time Golden Glove winner and three-time season-ending Best Nine member at shortstop. He has decent range and is versatile enough to play second and third.
“He’ll probably hit about .280 with 10 to 12 (home runs),” an American League scout said. “If he’s playing a bunch of different positions, that’s a lot of value. I don’t know who you could compare him to; maybe a lesser version of (Atlanta Braves infielder) Martin Prado. I think the power numbers might be similar, but Nakajima’s not going to hit 40 doubles like Prado does.”
Nakajima definitely has the skills, but comparisons to Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka could be a hindrance.
Nishioka, the former Chiba Lotte Marines All-Star, has flamed out spectacularly in MLB, hitting .215, with five doubles and a .267 on-base percentage in 71 games. He’s also committed 14 errors in time at second base and shortstop.
“Teams are going to be real shy on the contract because of that,” one scout said. “There’s no posting this time around, and I can’t speculate on the money, but I think he’ll be OK. Nakajima is a better all-around player.”
Fujikawa has been linked with a move to the majors for a few years, but was never posted by the Tigers. Posting isn’t an issue anymore, and the Hanshin star recently hired Don Nomura and Arn Tellem as his agents, suggesting he’ll attempt to sign with an MLB club.
“He’ll go, and he’ll have some value at the back end,” the AL scout said.
“Closer, maybe. Maybe a quality set-up man,” the scout from the NL team said. “I’m concerned about him pitching up in the zone all of the time. In the U.S., if you start throwing high, they’ll wait for that high pitch, and the hitters in America have more power than the Japanese. So he better start pitching low.”
Fujikawa throws his fastball in the mid- to low-90s (about 145-151 kph) and can still be effective with his forkball. “He’s kind of day-to-day with that,” the AL scout said. “Some days it’ll be real good, and some days not. Usually when he gets into a high-pressure situation, that’s when he’s able to turn it on. He doesn’t throw that big curveball he used to have. If he could bring that back in, he could be OK.
“He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s had success, he’s a confident guy. I don’t think he’s going to fold.”
Fujikawa, in his 12th season, is fifth all-time with 218 career saves and has a 12.0 career strikeout rate and 1.77 ERA. The right-hander has made at least 46 appearances each year since 2005 and last season saved 41 games with 80 strikeouts in 51 innings.
“I think he’s a pretty good pitcher,” said two-time Central League MVP Alex Ramirez of the Yokohama BayStars. “He has a plan, he puts it into action and that’s what makes him good.
“I think in the years before, he was better. His fastball was a lot harder, and he was getting a lot more people out. This year he’s been struggling a little bit. He’s still having a great season (2-2, 22 saves in 46 appearances), but I think right now he’s not as sharp as he was in the last couple of years.”
Toritani, Fujikawa’s teammate, is rumored to be mulling a move abroad as well.
Toritani debuted in 2004 and has a career .282/.359/.410 line with 99 home runs and 528 RBIs.
He hit around .280 with little power early in his career before a .288, 20-home run, season in 2009. He then hit .301 with 19 home runs and 104 RBIs in 2010.
“A guy like him is tough because he can beat you to both sides of the field,” said Tokyo Yakult Swallows closer Tony Barnette, who spent four years in the Arizona Diamondbacks system before coming to Japan in 2010. “As a pitcher, you try to mix it up with him. He’s a smart hitter who will pick up a pattern. When I face him, I try to give him the best I have to offer and, once I release the ball, I hope he gets himself out. Hitters like him rarely get beat by pitchers. The reason he gets out is because he mis-hit the ball.”
Unlike Nakajima, Toritani saw a severe drop in production with the new ball in play, hitting .300, but with five home runs and 51 RBIs in 2011. He’s struggling this season, as are most of the Tigers, hitting .258 with five home runs and 49 RBIs.
“I think he’s a good player; he’s solid,” the NL scout said. “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.”
Toritani’s struggles at the plate recently have raised red flags.
“At least Nakajima is going to hit for some power,” said one of the scouts. “Aoki’s power far outweighs what Toritani shows, and Aoki’s got six (now eight) home runs, which is four more than I thought he was going to hit. 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.
“I bet he goes over and he’s good for the first month or so, but then . . . it’s a lot better stuff (pitching), and in my opinion his bat speed is falling off a little bit.”
Japanese media have speculated that Tanaka also has MLB aspirations. He projects as a backup infielder, and with his speed and ability to hit to all fields, could carve out a place for himself the way Munenori Kawasaki has with the Seattle Mariners.
“I think he’s a second baseman who probably isn’t going to play every day, platoon with somebody else, be a pinch runner,” the AL scout said. “Probably be a good fit with a National League team. Somebody to come in, have a good at-bat to lead off an inning and steal second.”
Tanaka’s injury makes his status a bit murkier. He’s expected to miss two to three months, which rules him out for the rest of the NPB season, though he presumably would be ready to go in the spring.
“I’m sure teams have done their due diligence and shouldn’t discredit the whole season because of this one injury,” the NL scout said. “I’m sure he’ll be given a chance.”
Fairly or not, Nishioka’s struggles may cast a cloud over future Japanese position players initially, though Aoki has been a great acquisition for the Milwaukee Brewers.
“For me, Nishioka wasn’t a shortstop at all,” the AL scout said. “He shouldn’t have been put there. I think Tanaka and Nakajima have a mental edge over Nishioka.”
Adjusting to pitching in the U.S. has been one source of trouble for recent Japanese players, but often overlooked is the effect a deeper pool of position players can have.
“Position players are being built bigger and stronger every year,” Barnette said. “(Rockies shortstop Troy) Tulowitzki is 6-foot-3 (191 cm), 215 pounds (98 kg), runs like a deer and can throw guys out from left field.
“The competition for defense in the U.S. is as competitive as ever. Players from all over the world are trying to steal the next guy’s spot. As long as you can get the job done better than the next guy, the spot is yours. That increases the market for competition.
“So, the speed which many Japanese players possess gets overshadowed by the speed and strength of arms they face in the U.S. The bang-bang plays get won by the defense due to the arm strength. Japanese hitters are very contact-oriented, so putting the pressure on the defense to make the play tends to work in Japan but, in the States, those plays result in outs.”
It’s not something that can’t be overcome.
“They’re going to have to play their way into that (everyday) role,” an AL scout said. “It’s real tough to see a hitter get signed out of Japan as a hands-down, everyday guy based on what those guys have done to this point.
“Not comparing everybody to Ichiro, you can’t do that, but other than him, there really hasn’t been anybody. (Kenji) Johima struggled, (Kosuke) Fukudome struggled, Kaz Matsui struggled, they all struggled until they played for a while and played their way back into an everyday role. That’s where the market is now, regardless of how good some of these guys may, or may not, be.
“These guys are professionals and they know what kind of adjustments they need to make. For the most part, they’re probably willing to change a little bit more than the average American guy (in Japan).”