Changing of the Guard
This is a big year for NPB imports into MLB, with as many as seven front-line players poised to be wearing MLB uniforms in 2012. While all of the these players will be missed, their departures do collectively open spots for younger talent to fill. Here’s a look at who we might see stepping up in the next year and beyond.
- Hisashi Iwakuma (Rakuten) – Masahiro Tanaka took over as Rakuten’s ace in 2011, and the presence of Satoshi Nagai and Takahiro Shiomi softens the blow of losing Iwakuma. For me, the question of who inherits the title of Japan’s best groundball pitcher remains open.
- Wei-Yin Chen (Chunichi) – I’m not sure I see an immediate successor on Chunichi’s roster, though they do have young lefties Toshiya Okada and Yudai Ohno. And although he might be a year or two away, I’m looking to Yusei Kikuchi to emerge as Japan’s next top hard-throwing lefty starter.
- Hiroyuki Nakajima (Seibu) – Hideto Asamura played his way on to the Lions’ opening day roster in 2011, and was a tough out all season. He should move to shortstop in 2012, though he’ll have to fend off competition from Esteban German.
- Munenori Kawasaki (Softbank) – Softbank has young infielders Kenta Imamiya and Tu-Hsuan Lee waiting in the wings. It’s probably unrealistic to expect either to have the same kind of impact that Kawasaki did though. And it seems like the Kawasaki will be back at some point.
- Tsuyoshi Wada (Softbank) - Tadashi Settsu established himself as Softbank’s ace in waiting with a strong 2011. The losses of Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi mean that there will be more pressure on guys like Kenji Ohtonari, Sho Iwasaki, Shota Ohba and Shingo Tatsumi to pitch quality innings at the ichi-gun level. We’ll see who steps up in 2012.
- Norichika Aoki (Yakult) – So far, Lastings Milledge is set to replace Aoki on Yakult’s roster. Softbank’s Seiichi Uchikawa would currently get my vote as Japan’s top contact hitter, though he lacks Aoki’s plate discipline. I’m not sure I see any Aoki-type prospects on the horizon… I’ve read some good things about Orix’s Shunta, but he needs some time to put it together.
- Yu Darvish (Nippon Ham) – In terms of public stature and marketability, Yuki Saito is certainly Darvish’s heir as the face of the Fighters. Saito is no replacement for Darvish on the mound, and I don’t think Nippon Ham will really have a true successor for him for a long time. Rakuten’s Tanaka seems poised to begin his tenure as Japan’s ace.