2009 NPB Free Agents

Last Updated: March 17, 2009. This page is no longer being maintained. Please see the 2010 version.

I’ve decided to take a cue from MLB Trade Rumors and make this free agent list a permanent page. Here you’ll find a list of all the Japanese-league players who are eligible after the 2008 season.

Read on, or jump to the list of impending international or domestic free agents.

NPB Free Agency Explained

NPB free agency is a little different from MLB free agency. Starting this year, there are two categories of free agency: domestic and international. NPB players qualifying for domestic free agency can only move to other NPB teams, while players qualifying for international free agency are free to try their luck abroad as well.

Players drafted prior to 2007 must reach 8 years of service time to qualify for domestic free agency, while players drafted from 2007 onward only require 7 years of service. International free agency requires 9 years of service time for all players. One year of service time is defined as 145 days on the team’s top roster. Time spent on the farm time or injured list does not count as service time toward free agency. This is why guys like Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara won’t be free agents until after this year despite having started their careers in the late 90’s.

NPB teams signing NPB free agents are required to compensate the player’s former team with either money or players. The system is changing considerably for the 2008/9 off season. I’ve written about this in a little more detail in an earlier post. MLB teams do not pay compensation to NPB teams when signing NPB free agents.

Unlike MLB, it is not uncommon for NPB players to forgo their right to declare free agency and remain with their previous team. In fact, exercising free agency rights seems to be more the exception than the norm in NPB. This makes the common MLB practice of trading impending free agents as rentals non-existent in Japan. One tactic Japanese teams will employ is posting obviously MLB-bound players a year before they hit free agency.

International Free Agents

Koji Uehara (P, Yomiuri Giants): Of the current crop of upcoming free agents, Uehara is the most outspoken about his desire to play in MLB. I’ve profiled him and ranked him against Kawakami and Iwase. Final Update: signed with Baltimore.

Kenshin Kawakami (SP, Chunichi Dragons): Chunichi’s top starter is also likely to bolt for MLB. Get a closer look at him here. Final Update: signed with Atlanta.

Hitoki Iwase (RP, Chunichi Dragons): The Dragons’ veteran lefty closer is a free agent again this year. We’ll see if he hangs around or decides to try his hand at MLB. I’ve profiled him here. Update Nov 1: Iwase will decline free agency and remain with Chunichi.

Tomohiro Nioka (SS, Yomiuri Giants): I’m not sure if Nioka will rack up the service time he needs to move internationally by the end of the season. He’s gotten some negative publicity over his extra-marital flirtation with a TV newscaster this season, so the Giants may be ready to move on from him. Update Nov 1: My gut feeling is that the Giants are done with Nioka. Nippon Ham is interested. Update Nov 23: Traded to Nippon Ham, will play in Hokkaido next season.

Masahiro Araki (2B, Chunichi Dragons): Araki has hinted at trying the free agent market, but I would be surprised if he signed elsewhere. Update Sept 9: Staying put.

Hirokazu Ibata (SS, Chunichi Dragons): Nikkei Sports reports that Ibata will remain with Chunichi and “has no interest in filing for free agency.” Update Nov 1: Staying put.

Ryoji Aikawa (C, Yokohama BayStars): I don’t see him leaving Yokohama. Aikawa comments on his free agency: “when I joined the team I didn’t think I could do this. I’ll consider what to do after the season.” Update Oct 25: Aikawa has already announced his intent to declare free agency, with a move to MLB a possibility. He’s taken in some MLB playoff action and intends to participate in tryouts as a winter league invitee, but I don’t see him getting more than a minor league contract. Back in NPB, Yakult is interested in acquiring Aikawa to fill starting catcher role that no one has claimed since the retirement of the great Atsuya Furuta. Update Nov 23: Definitely leaving Yokohama, Yakult remains the most interested. Final Update: signed with Yakult.

Tatsuhiko Kinjoh (CF, Yokohama BayStars): According to Sponichi, Kinjoh is not planning on declaring free agency and will stay with the BayStars, at least for another year.

Naoyuki Ohmura (CF, Softbank Hawks): Ohmura has stated publicly that he wants to try his hand at MLB. “I want to go,” says Ohmura, “life is short and you only get one chance at it.” Ohmura is a contact hitter with zero power. He can probably start for an NPB team that gets power from other positions, or be possibly be a 4th outfielder type in MLB. Think So Taguchi. Update Nov 1: Traded to Orix, missed qualifying for free agency by 13 days.

Norihiro Nakamura (3B, Chunichi Dragons): “Not interested in other teams” were his exact words. Has had two MLB flirtations and drama at Kintetsu/Orix before finally settling into a groove with Chunichi. I can’t see him anywhere else. Update Nov 23: did a 180 and filed for free agency because Chunichi wanted to move him off third and give him a one-year contract. Looks set to join Rakuten. Dec 14: Did indeed move to Rakuten.

Masafumi Hirai (RP, Chunichi Dragons): Qualified for free agency last year, but elected to sign a one year contract with Chunichi. Having a bad season. Kind of an MLB sleeper type. Update, Oct 21: not filing for free agency; will attempt to regain his form with Chunichi. “If I had put up really great results this year I probably would have thought about it,” said Hirai.

Atsunori Inaba (OF, Nippon Ham Fighters): Inaba’s contract is up, but he’s unlikely to move. Inaba had looked to play in America when he originally qualified for free agency, but was only offered minor league contracts. Update Nov 1: As expected, will remain with Nippon Ham.

Daisuke Miura (SP, Yokohama BayStars): Miura is finishing up a six-year contract with Yokohama. Hanshin is already gearing up to make a play for him. Update Nov 1: Hanshin is preparing to offer Miura a 4-year/12-oku yen ($12M) contract. Miura says he wants another shot at a title. Final Update: re-signed with Yokohama.

Kim Dong-Ju (3B, Doosan (Korea)): Orix is looking at Kim as their third baseman for next year. EastWindup Chronicle has his numbers and some analysis. Final Update: staying in Korea.

Tasuku Hashimoto (C, Chiba Lotte Marines): Hashimoto feels like he can start, but is stuck behind all-star Tomoya Satozaki, so I think he’ll be likely to try his fortunes somewhere else. A number of teams are rumored to be interested after his strong 2008 season (.311, 11hr off the bench), but Hanshin is expected to make the biggest play to sign him. Current Tigers catcher Akihiro Yano won’t last forever, and there’s no internal heir apparent. Update, Nov 23: Staying with Lotte.

Saburo (OF, Chiba Lotte Marines): Saburo’s two-year contract is coming to an end, and he’s considering his options, which includemoving to MLB. Saburo is quoted as saying, “I’ve compared myself to the major league rightfielders that I see on TV, and if I’m going to go now is my only chance.” Saburo is coming off a solid offensive season (.289/.359/.416) and has won Gold Gloves in 2005 and 2007, but he still profiles as a 4th outfielder on most teams. Update, Nov 23: Staying with Lotte, after initially saying he’d try MLB.

Tyrone Woods (1B, Chunichi Dragons): Yahoo (via Daily Sports) reported that Tyrone Woods is going toleave Chunichi after the season ends. Woods put up another strong season in the Central League despite turning 39 in August, and should attract plenty of interest around NPB if he chooses to stay. I could see him moving to MLB too — if Darryl Ward can stick for the whole year on the 97-game winning Cubs, I have to think there’s a place for Woods somewhere. Final Update: doesn’t have a contract going in to the 2009 NPB season. Retired?

Hiram Bocachica (OF, Saitama Seibu Lions): Like most foreign players in Japan, Bocachica is playing for Seibu on a one-year contract. Though he played only 78 games, Bocachica hit a surprising 20 home runs this season. This blogger wants his Marines to go after him this offseason, but Hiram told Deanna that he wasn’t sure about staying in NPB. Update, Nov 23: Staying with Seibu.

Ken Takahashi (SP, Hiroshima Carp): Takahashi is coming off a resurgent season with Carp, and there’s a chance he’ll opt for free agency. It looks like teammate Hiroki Kuroda inspired this: “I’m interested in seeing what American baseball is like. The image of Kuroda has had a big impact. I’m struggling (with the decision)”. Takahashi is a lifelong Carp and 40 at the beginning of next season. I think it’s either Hiroshima or America for him. Update, Nov 23: wants to try MLB, will draw some limited interest. Final Update: signed minor league deal with Toronto.

Colby Lewis (SP, Hiroshima Carp): Lewis put up a great year for the Carp, and has already re-signed and should be Hiroshima’s opening day starter next year.

Hiroshi Shibahara (CF, Softbank Hawks): Sponichi reports that Rakuten is targetting Shibahara as the first free agent acquisition in the team’s four year history. Shibahara is still a useful player and would fill a veteran role for the team. Update, Nov 23: Nothing in the news on this guy, but apparently didn’t file for free agency.

NPB-only Free Agents

Ryota Igarashi (RP, Yakult Swallows): The hard-throwing reliever will carefully think over his options in the off-season. He’s eligible for domestic free agency, and he’s in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. Update Nov 1: Staying with Yakult for now, with an eventual eye to the majors.

Akihiro Higashide (2B, Hiroshima Carp): Higashide made some comments that you don’t typically hear from Japanese players: “I’ve worked hard to reach free agency. This is the result of year after year of fighting to be my best. I have to put good results in this kind of year.” True to his words, Higashide is in the midst of a break-out season, third in the Central League with a .334 BA (career BA: .255). It looks like he’s qualified for domestic free agency; there is speculation that he could draw interest from Hanshin, Yomiuri, and Chunichi. I would hate to see Hiroshima lose yet another star. Update, Oct 25: Yokohama is showing interest. Update Nov 23: signed a four-year deal to stay with Hiroshima.

Hisanori Takahashi (SP, Yomiuri Giants): Takahashi just recently qualified. “I’ve got this season on my mind and right now I don’t have the luxury of thinking about it,” said Takahashi, adding “it’s a milestone, and a personal reward. I want to think about what to do as an individual baseball player.” Update Nov 23: signed a one-year deal to stay with the Giants.

Naoyuki Shimizu (SP, Chiba Lotte Marines): Shimizu was set to be a hot commodity among NPB teams this winter, drawing rumored interested from Hanshin, Rakuten, Yakult, Yokohama and the Giants, but has recently revealed that he intends to pass on free agency this year with an eye toward the majors later on.

Shingo Ono (SP, Chiba Lotte Marines): After a little indecision, Ono appears to be leaning towards free agency. “I feel like would like to remain with Lotte, but they’re developing good young pitchers and I have to think about moving. I have confidence that I can play for another team.” Yokohama is rumored to be interested in his services. Update, Nov 23: staying with Lotte.

Hidetaka Kawagoe (RP, Orix Buffaloes): Reportedly ready to move after being offered a pay cut by Orix. (Thanks to reader Jeff B for the tip). Update Nov 23: re-signed with Orix after all.