Baseball is back in Japan. NPB teams have been playing practice games against each other since June 2 and the June 19 start of the regular season is approaching fast.
With that in mind, here are six players to keep an eye out for in the Central League.
Kazuma Okamoto, Yomiuri Giants, infielder
Okamoto played in all 143 games in 2018 and again last season, connecting on 33 and 31 homers respectively.
The Yomiuri cleanup man is starting to come into his own and could very well be the premier power hitter the Giants have been looking for since Shinnosuke Abe aged out of the role.
Okamoto, who turns 24 June 30, hit.265 last year after batting.309 in 2018. Now under the tutelage of advisor and former Yomiuri star Warren Cromartie, Okamoto is poised to continue his growth into one of the top sluggers of the future.
Tyler Austin, Yokohama BayStars, outfielder
Austin’s impact on the Yoshitomo Tsutsugo-less BayStars is contingent on how the team allocates its slots for foreign players, which may be expanded to five, on the top team.
Austin, entering his first NPB season, has 33 home runs, though a.219 average, in 209 games across four MLB seasons. He played for the Twins, Giants and Brewers last year, connecting on nine homers in 89 games.
His potential power has already been put on display in Japan.
On June 2, Austin hit a ball clear out of Yokohama Stadium. Overall, he hit four homers in 12 official preseason games and then four more in practice games after COVID-19 delayed the season.
Shintaro Fujinami, Hanshin Tigers, pitcher
Fujinami might be the biggest wildcard in NPB. The Tigers already have a solid starting rotation, but if Fujinami can consistently stay on track — a big ask as of late — he takes them to another level.
Fujinami’s career started strong before walks, wild pitches and hit batters knocked him off kilter. Even in his brilliant 2015 campaign (14-7, 2.40 ERA, 2.52 FIP and 221 strikeouts in 199 frames) he walked 82 batters and hit 11.
Fujinami made one top-team appearance in 2019, walking six in 4⅓ innings. On the farm, he posted a 3.84 ERA, struck out 72 and walked 27 in 75 innings. He also tied for the Western League lead with seven hit batters.
Fujinami has a blistering fastball and great forkball. In terms of talent alone, he should be one of the best pitchers in Japan. He just has to stay out of his own way.
Seiya Suzuki, Hiroshima Carp, OF
You could easily make the argument Suzuki was the best player in Japan last season.
Suzuki led NPB with a.335 average and .453 on-base percentage while also slugging .565. He hit 28 homers, stole 25 bases, and, per Data Stadium, led NPB with a 8.6 WAR and 188 weighted runs created plus.
Then, he earned MVP honors at the Premier12 in November. Since 2015, he has a .323 average, four seasons with at least 26 homers and three with at least 16 steals.
He’s also a great right fielder and doesn’t look like he’s slowing down any time soon.
Shinnosuke Ogasawara, Chunichi Dragons, P
The lefty had surgery on his elbow in August of 2018 and made just seven appearances (in August and September) last season. He allowed 12 runs — 11 earned — in his 38⅔ innings. He allowed more than two runs in just one of his seven starts and threw at least five innings in all but one.
He was able to add a little velocity to his fastball and also throws a changeup, curveball and slider.
The 22-year-old should feature in the rotation if healthy and continue to show why some think he’s a future No 1. arm.
Tetsuto Yamada, Tokyo Yakult Swallows, IF
Yamada’s 8.0 WAR last season was second only to Seiya Suzuki in NPB.
This could be a pivotal year for Yamada, who’ll turn 28 in July and could reach domestic free agency requirements during the season.
If that lights a fire under him, we could see an explosion considering he’s already on a run of four 30-homer, 30-steal seasons in the last five years. He batted over .300 in three of those campaigns (he’s the only NPB player ever to have a 30-30 season with a .300 average more than once) and finished with an OPS of at least .961 four times.