Going Deep: Future MLB International Imports
(Graphic by Justin Paradis)
Baseball may be called “America’s Pastime,” but Major League Baseball (MLB) is made up of players from all around the world. In fact, according to a National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) analysis of data released by Major League Baseball, 27% of the majors is made up of foreign-born players. Within that foreign-born demographic, one of the most intriguing markets for both real life organizations and fantasy baseball managers is the Asian-pacific which includes baseball powerhouse Japan and South Korea. Japan, in particular, has a rich history of producing high-end talent that has achieved great success in MLB. Some notable examples include 2001 American League (AL) MVP OF Ichiro Suzuki, 2009 World Series MVP OF/DH Hideki Matsui, 1995 National League (NL) Rookie of the Year SP Hideo Nomo, 4-time All-Star SP Yu Darvish now of the Chicago Cubs, and most recently the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year SP/DH Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels. South Korea notably has produced Texas Rangers 2018 AL All-Star OF Shin Soo-Choo, Pittsburgh Pirates 3B Jung-Ho Kang, and Colorado Rockies RP Seung-Hwan Oh among others.
With the news that Japanese LHP Yusei Kikuchi is set to be posted this offseason by the Seibu Lions and likely play in the majors in 2019, I thought it was worthwhile to take a deeper look at his profile, as well as other potential MLB imports. The goal here is to try to understand their skill-sets, their potential impact in the majors and how it relates to fantasy baseball, as well as when they are most likely to play in North America.
Before we begin, I just want to share the two most important factors in regards to potential MLB ETA when it comes to Japanese and Korean League players:
1.) Service Time – Players that accrue nine years of service time in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) or the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) are considered International free agents. That means that if a player has not reached that 9 years of service time threshold, the Japanese or Korean League team retains the rights of that player. I wrote an article here on the subject of MLB Service Time if you want to know more! If the player has reached the 9 years of service time required and is not under contract with a team, the player can pursue opportunities in any league including MLB without being subject to the posting system. A good example is when the Yankees signed Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui to a three-year, $21 million contract in December 2002, without having to go through the posting process.
2.) Age and experience for posting eligibility – To be eligible for posting, the player must be considered a “foreign professional” which is defined as “players who are at least 25 years of age and have played as a professional in a foreign league recognized by Major League Baseball for a minimum of six seasons”. Players that don’t meet that requirement are eligible for International Amateur Free Agency instead which often limits the earning potential of the player. A good example is Shohei Ohani last year who was posted and then signed with the Los Angeles Angels while being 23 years of age at the time and having played professionally in Japan for just 5 years. He subsequently received just a $2.3 Million signing bonus plus his $545,000 per year salary when he easily could have commanded much more on the open market by waiting until he was 25 to come over to MLB.
I also think that it’s worthwhile to share the process of posting and what exactly happens because it’s pretty fascinating:
When there is a player under contract with a NPB or KBO team that wishes to play in Major League Baseball, he must notify his current team’s management and request that they make him available for posting during the next posting period. The team can reject this request, and the player will not be posted. However, if the team consents, the player is presented to the MLB Commissioner, who then notifies all MLB teams of the posted player.
- For Japanese players, once the MLB Commissioner announces the posting, the player can negotiate with all clubs and has 30 days to sign with an MLB team with the “release fee” determined by the guaranteed value of the contract that the posted player eventually signs with an MLB organization.
- For Korean players, once the MLB Commissioner announces the posting, all 30 Major League clubs are allowed to place a blind bid for exclusive negotiating rights which afford the highest bidder 30 days to work out a contract with that player. If the player and the highest bidding MLB team reach an agreement, the bid (or “posting fee”) is awarded to the player’s former KBO club.
Now that we’ve got the rules out of the way, let’s get started!
Yusei Kikuchi (SP, Seibu Lions) Age: 27
A number of years ago Kikuchi, now 27, was considering jumping to Major League Baseball (MLB) straight out of high school, which would have been unprecedented. The closest to do so was former Boston Red Sox RP Junichi Tazawa who was undrafted out of high school, played one year in a Japanese independent league, and then chose to forego the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) for MLB. NPB doesn’t like the idea of the best young Japanese players not playing in Japan, so nowadays anyone who signs with an MLB team out of high school is banned from NPB for at least three years. Not surprisingly, no one has done it and Kikuchi has spent the last 8 years playing in the NPB. A left-handed pitcher, Kikuchi posted a 3.08 ERA with 153 strikeouts (23.4 K%) and 45 walks (6.9 BB%) in 23 starts and 163.2 innings in 2018. Note that the NPB is a lower strikeout league in which the average strikeout rate is 18.9% (MLB average 22.3% in 2018). Additionally, Kikuchi’s 12.2% swinging-strike rate in 2018 was just behind the league lead among qualified pitchers of 12.3%. His finest season though came in 2017 as a 26-year-old, pitching to a 1.97 ERA over 187.2 innings with an impressive 10.4 K/9.
He has 4 offerings, highlighted by a fastball that sits in the mid-’90s and a slider which he combined to throw about 83% of the time according to NPB sabermetrics site DeltaGraphs. Kikuchi’s arsenal is filled out with a big curveball that is about 18 mph slower than the fastball, and a changeup that he mixes in about 5% of the time to give hitters a different look. Take a look at the arsenal for yourself:
96 MPH Fastball
85 MPH Slider
78 MPH Curveball
88 MPH Changeup
They all rate average or better with the fastball reportedly a plus pitch, the slider and curve being above-average, and the changeup flashing above-average but being held back by inconsistency. That profiles as a quality mid-rotation starter in MLB with the upside of a #2, especially early in his career before the rest of the league catches up to him (remember the early success of other Japanese pitchers!). Also, I think it’s interesting to note that Kikuchi is a notorious Trackman studier and I think there may be yet another gear for him to hit.
He has had some durability concerns in the past regarding his throwing shoulder including this past May where he was taken off of the active roster of the Seibu Lions due to shoulder tightness. He was also previously shut down with shoulder troubles back in 2010 and 2013 and so those investing in him, both in real life and in fantasy baseball, should be aware of the potential injury risk associated with him. Still, his skill-set and polish points to a quality player that should be able to return immediate value and I think he’s worth the investment in both dynasty and re-draft leagues ahead of the 2019 MLB season.
Tomoyuki Sugano (SP, Yomiuri Giants) Age: 28
It’s been suggested by some scouts that Sugano is the top pitcher in the world that isn’t pitching in MLB, and his dominance in the NPB league supports that claim. He has pitched between 158.2 and 202 innings each of the last 5 years, and his ERA totals over that time are as follows: 2.33, 1.91, 2.01, 1.59, 2.25. The 2017 and 2018 season’s winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award as Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher reportedly wants a new challenge and to take his shot at MLB sometime soon. Unfortunately for us in North America, we may not get a chance to see him pitching here until 2021 when he becomes an international free agent as his team the Yomiuri Giants have been resistant to posting their players historically.
Stuff-wise, Sugano has an above-average fastball with a high-spin rate that sits in the low-90’s but can reach 95 when he needs a little extra. He also has two plus breaking balls in a slider and curveball that he adds and subtracts from constantly, and does so with true precision. He often pitches backward, utilizing his breaking balls to set up the fastball. He also mixes in a changeup that might be called a forkball by some, but it’s more of a change of pace pitch, primarily against opposite-handed hitters, rather than a true swing and miss relied upon to get strikeouts. It’s a somewhat similar profile to New York Yankees SP Masahiro Tanaka except Tanaka pitches off of his dynamic splitter whereas Sugano pitches off his slider, the net result is similar though! Here’s a 3 pitch strikeout that exemplifies his control and ability to keep hitters off balance:
For those in dynasty leagues, he’s one to remember but know that a potential MLB ETA is not until 2021 so investing in him would come with little immediate value and would require patience.
Takahiro Norimoto (SP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) Age: 27
Norimoto took over for Masahiro Tanaka as staff ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles back in 2014 and has done nothing but put up numbers despite his short stature (5 foot 10, 178 lbs). He was especially dominant from 2015 to 2017, take a look:
Despite a slight step back this past year that included a 3.69 ERA along with 187 strikeouts (24.6 K%) against 51 walks (6.7 BB%) over 180 innings, he extended his streak of leading the Pacific League (1 of 2 divisions in NPB, the other is the Central League) in strikeouts to 5 consecutive years. He also tied for the NPB lead in swinging-strike rate among qualified pitchers with a 12.3% mark this past year. He clearly is one of the most dominant arms currently playing in Japan and he has the swing and miss stuff to compete against the best of MLB. Here is a good example of him just overpowering a hitter for Team Japan:
Looking at his arsenal of pitches, Norimoto has a mid-90s fastball that is known for an above-average spin rate that causes the ball to “rise” and deceive batter’s eyes, and can also miss bats with both his splitter and slider, both of which are considered plus weapons. 3 plus pitches along with quality control suggest that Norimoto has #2 SP upside in an MLB rotation and we may not be too far from seeing that happen. Norimoto signed a three-year extension worth $1.72M per season back in 2016 and reportedly asked to be posted at the end of the contract in 2019 to take a shot at the MLB when he will be 29. A 2020 MLB ETA seems likely at this point so be sure to remember him a year from now!
Kodai Senga (SP, SoftBank Hawks) Age: 25
Senga completed his 7th NPB season in 2018, the last 3 of those have been spent in the starting rotation after having started his career in a bullpen role. I have been unable to find exactly when his contract is over, but he’s 2 years away from International Free Agency eligibility qualifications and he’ll be 27 when he does. Senga has reportedly indicated during 2017 salary negotiations with the team that he is eyeing a future move to the major leagues via the posting system which could make his MLB ETA as soon as next year. What makes him interesting for MLB teams and potential fantasy baseball owners is that he may have one the best strikeout pitches in the world in his Forkball, or splitter if you prefer. Take a look:
It’s pure filth and should play well against any competition including in MLB! He also has an above-average fastball that sits in the 93-94 mph velocity range, as well as an above-average slider that he’ll incorporate against right-handed hitters. It’s an interesting 3 pitch mix that is led by an elite strikeout pitch, and it has led to 3 impressive seasons as a starter:
The rest of the profile leaves some questions regarding his long-term viability as a starter though. He’s dealt with shoulder, elbow, and back tightness at varying times over the last 3 years and also had left knee discomfort which sidelined him back in 2016. That along with some inconsistent success has some projecting that he could be a better fit in an MLB bullpen in a “fireman” sort of role where he can really let loose. Regardless, he’s interesting and is one to keep an eye on in dynasty leagues.
Tetsuto Yamada (2B, Yakult Swallows) Age: 25
Yamada has been one of the most dynamic players in NPB over the last number of years, he’s sort of been like the Mike Trout of Japan and I’m not only one to suggest that! In 2015, Yamada hit .329/.416/.610 with 38 home runs and 34 stolen bases and was promptly named Central League MVP. He followed that up with a 304/.425/.607 batting line with 38 homers and 30 stolen bases in 2016. He had a bit of a down year in 2017 while dealing with a back injury, but bounced right back in 2018 with 34 HRs and 33 SBs while hitting a crazy .315/.432/.582 over 637 PAs that was worth a 157 wRC+. He’s a right-handed hitter with tremendous bat speed and quick twitch athleticism, plus he knows how to control the strike zone (18.7 K% and 16.6 BB% from this past year). He’s a middle infielder that profiles best at 2B at the MLB level, and his potential upside at that position would be huge if he came over to MLB despite some concern from scouts over the length of his swing along with the many moving parts and how it all will translate! Here is his swing:
Yamada has supposedly expressed interest in coming over to MLB, and since he is now 25, he won’t be subject to the international bonus pool spending cap like Shohei Ohtani was last year which means a big potential payday for Yamada if he does indeed get posted. I am really unsure of his potential MLB ETA…I can’t find reliable details on the term left on his contract (supposedly 2-3 years left) but he’s 2 years away from meeting the requirements for international free agency and I know he took a pay cut ahead of this past season so there may be a financial incentive for both him and the Yakult Swallows to post their star player soon. Alternatively, Yakult plays in the huge Tokyo market and competes directly with the two powerhouses of Japanese baseball, the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers so their need to hang on to special players like Yamada is immense! The short version is we could see Yamada be posted as soon next offseason or we may be stuck waiting a few more years. Regardless, he’s one to watch and remember for dynasty leagues!
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (OF, Yokohama Baystars) Age: 26
Considered one of the better sluggers in NPB, Tsutsugo hit .295/.393/.596 this past season with 38 HRs in 580 PAs that was worth a terrific 155 wRC+. He was even better in 2016 though when he hit a dominant .322/.430/.680 with 44 HRs in 561 PAs while supporting it with an 18.7% strikeout rate and 15.% walk rate. All told he was worth a ridiculous 199 wRC+ that season. He’s not known as a good defender, and there’s many who think he could really only play 1st base or even DH consistently in MLB, but it’s the bat that has people excited at his potential. Take a look at this no-doubter as evidence:
The combination of plus-plus raw power and above-average contact skills highlighted by an above 8.5% swinging-strike rate in 2018 is rare! He’s a proven slugger that is smack dab in the middle of his prime at 26 years currently, and one that should be young enough to still be in his prime if he tries his hand at MLB which should be interesting to both MLB teams as well as potential fantasy owners. Tsutsugo can wait until after the 2021 season to be an international free agent or demand to be posted after any season.
Yuki Yanagita (OF, SoftBank Hawks) Age: 30
The top performer in NPB in terms of wRC+ this past season with an unreal 207 mark, Yanagita is considered one of the biggest stars of the league and one that is a starting MLB caliber player. He slashed a dominant .352/.431/.661 in 2018 with 36 HRs and 21 SBs and supported it with a 19.1% strikeout rate and 11.3% walk rate over 550 PAs. Success isn’t foreign for Yanagita at the plate either as over his 7 full-time seasons, he’s got a.319 career batting average, a .420 career on-base%, posted double-digits in both HRs and SBs in each of the last 6 years, and notably was the 2015 Pacific League MVP. Also of note, Yanagita has been a star and hero for Japan in the recent 2018 MLB vs Japan series that was highlighted by this walk-off HR against San Diego Padres closer Kirby Yates:
Yanagita reportedly has expressed MLB interest and could come as soon as next season when he’s eligible for International Free Agency, but do note that the Softbank Hawks have him under contract for another year after that which could mean a 2020 posting scenario or 2021 International Free agent signing. He’ll be on the back half of his baseball career at that point so we likely won’t get his best, still, his power/speed combo with his ability to hit and get on base should make him a desired target both for MLB teams and those in dynasty leagues!
Seong-Beom Na (OF, NC Dinos) Age: 29
There aren’t a whole lot of potential impact MLB players currently playing in the KBO, but Seong-Beom Na may be considered the brightest of the bunch. He’s got a powerful 6-foot, 220 lbs build along with above-average bat speed and the result is plus raw power and lots of hard contact at the plate. Check it out for yourself:
The result is he has average 25.4 HRs per season over the last 5 years, and he also has shown some ability to use his speed by averaging 15.2 SBs over that same time-span. When you add in that he’s hit between .309 and .347 in each of the last 5 years as well, you start to see why he could be of interest for dynasty fantasy leagues. Korean sabermetrics site Statiz says his 2018 season was worth a 126 wRC+ at the plate and 4.5 WAR overall. 2017 was even better though as he put up 154 wRC+ and 5.8 WAR that year while slashing .347/.418/.584. He must be able to hold his own in RF too as he’s a two-time gold glove winner at the position to date in KBO as well.
This past May, Seong-Beom Na reportedly signed with the Boras Corporation for his agency with the intention of trying to come over to MLB in the near future. He will be eligible to be posted by his club after the 2019 season which would make his MLB ETA 2020. There’s definitely concern on how well he can potentially translate his game to MLB, he’s aggressive at the plate which leads to some swing and miss highlighted by a 21.1% strikeout rate in 2018, and he was far from the best hitter in the KBO this past season as his 126 wRC+ ranked 21st best in the KBO. He’ll also be 30 by MLB Opening Day next year which means we may not be getting his best years if he comes over. Regardless, he’s interesting!
Ha-Seong Kim (SS, Nexen Heroes) Age: 23
The youngest player on this list and also perhaps the player furthest from being able to contribute, Ha-Seong Kim is a longer-term project but one that offers some intriguing upside while playing the ever important SS position. He just turned 23 in October, and he already has 4 and half seasons worth of KBO experience. Back in 2016, he hit a cool .281/.361/.477 with 20 HRs and 28 SBs and supported it with a 13.4% strikeout rate and 10% walk rate over 599 PAs which is pretty darn impressive considering he was just 20-years-old while playing that season. He followed it up with a .302/.380/.513 season in 2017 with 23 HRs and 16 SBs that was worth a 125.4 wRC+ before taking a slight step back in 2018 to a 108.5 wRC+ while dealing with a hand injury. Assuming that the power/speed combo with a strong approach returns with better health, Ha-Seong Kim could position himself as a very interesting MLB SS or 2B prospect in both real life baseball and for fantasy leagues.
The problem is it may take a while for him to reach MLB as he isn’t eligible for International Free Agency until 2022, at which point he will be 27. Until then, here is a HR he hit in the 2017 World Baseball Classic against rival Japan: