Archive > October 2012

2013 Free Agents

» 29 October 2012 » In mlb prospects, nichibei » Comments Off

All right, here we go. 2013 free agents.

This year, 85 players (18 domestic, 67 international) qualify for free agency. In practice, only a small minority will file and change teams. I will highlight the interesting ones; here’s the full list in Japanese (Google Translate may work all right for that).

International Free Agents

Players who have accumulated nine years of service time are eligible to move overseas.

  • Kyuji Fujikawa, relief pitcher, Hanshin Tigers

This year’s FA class is undoubtedly headed by Hanshin closer Fujikawa, NPB’s most dominant reliever over the last several years. Kyuji has been on the nichibei scene for years; he was actually the first player I profiled way back in 2008 and has since made a perennial habit of asking Hanshin to post him and being turned down. Now as a free agent he’ll finally get his shot. Kyuji isn’t the same guy as he was in 2006, but he still get’s plenty of swinging strikes with the usual vertical movement on his fastball and splitters in the dirt (more data here). His K rate in 2012 was 10.95 per 9, which is great but actually down a bit from his usual 12-14 range. He’ll certainly command an MLB contract, but it seems likely that he’ll begin his MLB career in a middle relief role.

  • Hiroyuki Nakajima, shortstop/infield, Saitama Seibu Lions

If Nakajima’s name sounds familiar, that’s probably because he was posted last offseason, and his negotiating rights were won by the Yankees. Nakaji and the Bombers failed to agree to a contract, so he hopped in his Ferrari and headed back to the Lions for another year, putting up a healthy .311/.382/.451 slash line. His batting average might have led the Pacific League had Lotte not gutlessly pitched around him on the last day of the season, but instead ended up a single point behind Katsuya Kakunaka. His OBP ranked second in the Pacific League, and his slugging pct was fourth, and well ahead of the next middle infielder. In the field he seems to make the play he gets to, but has lost some range, and the consensus is that he’s probably not a full-time MLB shortstop.

Anyway, now Nakajima is back on the market as a free agent. I was a big fan of the idea of Nakaji in New York, acclimatizing himself to MLB while getting 300 or so at-bats spelling Derek Jeter at SS and Alex Rodriguez at 3B, but obviously that didn’t come to fruition. There were other MLB teams interested in Nakajima last time around, so I think there is little doubt he’ll find an MLB deal this year, but it will remain to be seen what kind of role he winds up in.

  • Takashi Toritani, shortstop/infield, Hanshin Tigers

There are a number of things to like about Toritani: he’s played every game since 2005, he led NPB in walks by a wide margin in 2012, defensively he inspires a bit more confidence at shortstop than Nakajima. On the flip side, his power evaporated with the introduction of the new ball in 2011, we have yet to see an NPB shortstop move to MLB and stick, and the most observers seem to agree that he’d be better off remaining in Japan. If his defense and plate discipline hold up, his skill set sounds Oakland A’s-ish, but that’s hardly a given and Hanshin will make a big play to keep him. His best financial offer will certainly come from Japan and I think he’ll probably stay put.

  • Kensuke Tanaka, 2b/infield, Nippon Ham Fighters

Tanaka has been on the free agency market before, but he signed a multi-year contract with Nippon Ham that included an opt-out that allows him to pursue an MLB deal. He is expected to exercise that right. The book on Tanaka is that of a small-ball player: he’s a rangy second baseman who hits for average and draws walks, gets bunts down and steals bases, but offers minimal power. As such, of the infielders listed here he most obviously profiles as a utility guy, though his glove is probably the best of the three. Reporting out of Japan indicates that he seems willing to take a minor league contract, and if that’s the case someone will give him a chance to win a job. Incidentally, he may have kind of a roundabout advantage in that having been a teammate of Yu Darvish for several years, MLB scouts should already be pretty familiar with him.

  • Hideki Okajima, relief pitcher, Softbank Hawks

You guys remember Okajima. After the Yankees terminated his contract last year (that’s two nearly-Yankees Jima’s this list), Okie signed with Softbank and had a strong year, not allowing an earned run until August. He’s angling for an MLB return this offseason.

Posting Candiates

There are no significant posting candidates this offseason.

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Report: Nippon Ham Intends to Draft Otani

» 24 October 2012 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb draft » 22 Comments

Update: Nippon Ham did indeed draft Otani, and Ben Badler has confirmed that that won’t legally stop him from signing with an MLB team. I had implied that it would, at least until the negotiation period ends, and I was incorrect about that.

Aaaaaaaaaaaand we have our first bit of drama in Shohei Otani‘s journey to MLB. Quoted in Sanspo, Nippon Ham Fighters GM Masao Yamada has declared his intent to select Otani with his first pick in today’s (JST time) draft.

“Regarding Otani-kun, he’s made comments saying like to go to a Major League team, but as a ball club we will follow through with our intent to select the strongest player with our first pick. We plan to select Otani-kun.”

 

「大谷君に関しましてはメジャー球団に行きたいというコメントがありましたが、球団としましては一番力のある選手を1位指名するという方針を貫きます。大谷君を1位指名するつもりです」

note: the “kun”  suffix is a name identifier; kind of like “san” for young men.

If Nippon Ham (or any other NPB team) drafts Otani, they will have the right to sign him until the end of March 2013. The MLB and NPB working agreement prohibits one league from signing players who are under contract with a team from the other league, so at a minimum being selected in the draft would delay Otani signing with an MLB club for several months.

Why would Yamada pick Otani, despite his intent to sign with an MLB club? Well, he’s within his rights to do so, since Otani announced his MLB plans after declaring eligible for the NPB draft. Yamada must feel that Otani’s upside is worth the signability risk. Maybe he thinks he can talk him into signing. This move is not unprecedented; last year Yamada selected Tomoyuki Sugano, the consensus top college arm in the draft, who had let it be known that he would not sign with anyone other than the Yomiuri Giants. Sugano didn’t even negotiate with Nippon Ham and is back in the draft this year.

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Who Is Shohei Otani?

» 18 October 2012 » In mlb prospects, nichibei, npb draft » 4 Comments

Okay, so the cat is out of the bag about high school pitching prospect Shohei Otani. Here’s everything I know about him.

I first found out about Otani about a year ago, when Yakyu Kozoh had a story on potential successors to Yu Darvish. Otani caught my eye because he graded a perfect 5/5 “Darvishes” and, at 17, he was the youngest pitcher profiled. Every tall, young righty elicits some kind of comparison to Darvish from the Japanese media, so Otani is not unique in that regard. What is a little more unique is that in terms of physique and ability, the comparison stands up reasonably well. At 193 cm (6’4) and 86 kg (189 lbs), Otani measures similarly to Darvish, though a little shorter and perhaps a little heavier than Darvish was at 18. Otani also has a similarly live arm, though with a little more velocity and a lot less polish than Darvish exhibited as a high schooler.

I’ve only seen one Otani pitch one full game, his appearance in this spring’s Koshien Senbatsu tournament against fellow draft phenom Shintaro Fujinami. It was a frustrating game to watch, as the raw quality of Otani’s stuff was evident, but his command was non-existent. He featured a fastball ranging from about 145-152 km/h (90-95 mph), a slider around 132-136 km/h (82-84 mph) and curve around 125 km/h (77 mph). Everything had movement, and his wildness was of the effective variety until the 6th inning, when he and his defense faltered, before melting down (video) in the 7th. For the day, Otani struck out 11, walked 11 and gave up nine runs (five earned) while taking the loss. That looks bad, but Otani was facing a quality lineup with aluminum bats on a big stage, and his manager left him out for 173 pitches. The raw talent is there, but it was clearly just that in that game – raw.

Helpfully, the Koko Yakyu site live-blogged this game in English, so it is available for your perusal.

I didn’t see the July 19 prefectural tournament game that Otani has since become known for, when he hit 160 km/h (99 mph) on the scoreboard gun, but I did Tweet about it when it happened. I’ve since found about 14 minutes worth of Otani footage from that game (skip to the 7:58 mark if you want to see the 160 km/h fastball). Obviously the 14 minutes we have are biased, but Otani appears to be a lot more confident with his stuff than he was in the Senbatsu game, and accordingly his command is much better. Grains of salt apply; he was facing weaker competition and the stadium gun was hot, as the scouts in attendance had his velocity a bit lower. Still, an even more limited set of highlights from his appearance in the IBAF 18U tournament implies that he’s capable of better command than he showed in the spring.

So Otani is a prospect, and an excellent one at that. If his command was better I might call him the best high school pitching prospect I’ve seen in the 12 years or so that I’ve been paying attention, but for now I think that distinction will remain with Hayato Terahara. My preferred print publications Shukan Baseball and Yakyu Kozoh have him at the top of this year’s draft class, and NPB Prospect Watch ranks him third, noting his command issues but also his excellent track record as a batter. Draft Reports has a long list of comments from scouts on him, too many to translate individually but unanimously in praise of his potential. A couple of notable comments were from the Dodgers’ Logan White, who said that he went to Japan just to see Otani, and the Rays’ Tim Ireland, who compared him to Felix Hernandez.

What happens now? The NPB draft will take place on October 25, and Otani has declared eligible. As of September he was 50/50 on NPB vs MLB, but some Japanese media outlets seem convinced that he’s headed to MLB. I’m not sure if I find those reports credible just yet. Otani has met with the Dodgers, Red Sox and Rangers, and had a meeting with the Orioles that he couldn’t get on to his schedule. Otani will not meet with any more MLB clubs. One wrinkle that Otani will have to consider is that if he signs with an MLB club, he’ll be barred from joining an NPB team for a period of three years after he leaves MLB, under a rule enacted after Junichi Tazawa signed with Boston.

Coincidently, Otani attends Hanamaki Higashi high school in Iwate Prefecture, the school that produced lefty Yusei Kikuchi. Kikuchi was a similarly hot prospect back in 2009, and went through his own dramatic NPB/MLB decision in which he was publicly courted by all 12 NPB teams and eight MLB teams before choosing to remain in Japan. The Otani situation has not developed in to the same kind of media frenzy that the Kikuchi situation did, which is good  because the stress clearly took it’s toll on Kikuchi. Perhaps Hanamaki manager Hiroshi Sasaki is applying the experience he had with Kikuchi to this year’s edition.

We should know which way Otani is headed in the next week or so. Wherever he winds up it’ll be fun to see how he develops.

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