This is a list and short evaluation of the players I think have a decent shot at becoming impact players in the MLB. It consists of two sections, elite hitters in their prime, and young hitters who have a decent projection and room to grow (minimum projected wOBA of .275). I only take into account hitting. Fielding would have to be scouted additionally. Also, nobody knows if any of these players would actually want to go to the MLB if and when their contracts expire. They are just players I would keep an eye on for if I were an MLB team. The numbers given are their projections.
Note: There is no super elite and young, Ichiro level talent in the NPB right now. I’m talking about players who could potentially be solid starters and role players in the MLB. I don’t think you will find a superstar bat right now from Japan.
Elite prime age NPB hitters
You won’t find the likes Shinnosuke Abe here, because while he is a stud with the bat, he’s getting a little long in the tooth (almost 34). At least, a little long in the tooth for MLB teams to consider giving him a tempting offer. The oldest player I have in this section is Takashi Toritani at 32.
Nobuhiro Matsuda, IF, 29 – .282/.328/.492, .339 wOBA
Matsuda is a beast with the bat, as I’ve written about him before. He plays primarily third base, and is a double and triple hitting machine. His walk rate leaves something to be desired, and his strikeout rate isn’t great, though it has improved this year. However, he give you very good power, decent home runs and excellent doubles and triples, with some pretty good speed. Additionally, his defense appears to be solid, at least. Since third base has been a relatively weak position in the MLB recently, he could provide excellent value if given an opportunity. Plus, at age 29, he is at what should be his physical peak for a few more years. As far as past players I’ve projected, his .339 wOBA puts him right up there with Hideki Matsui and Kosuke Fukudome, who both had some pretty good seasons in the MLB. Hideki Matsui isn’t a bat comp in several ways. In the MLB, Matsui had some decent home run power, and some seasons of very good doubles power. Matsuda doesn’t quite have the walking ability that Matsui did, but he could provide similar power. I’m sure most teams wouldn’t complain to have a lesser OBP Matsui, who could field better and play a more premium position. If he ever made the jump.
Dae-Ho Lee, 1B, 30 – .277/.341/.436, .327 wOBA
Lee is one of my favorite players. He might not have the body to play in the MLB, but he has hit everywhere he has gone. As you can read in my other post, Lee put up video game numbers in Korea as he broke the world record for consecutive games with a home run, and won the Septuple Crown in 2010 (leading in BA, HR, RBI, R, OBP, SLG%, and H). He moved to the NPB this past season, and was one of the better hitters in his rookie season in Japan. Additionally, he won the home run derby in the NPB this past year, and has a history of great success in international competition. Lee is a power hitter, mostly. He gives you a decent average, and a decent walk rate. His strikeout rate is great, and he has quite good power numbers. The main thing working against him is that he is a first baseman. Lee could be a pretty good hitter. But to be a first baseman in the MLB, you have to be a great hitter. But who knows? He could adjust to the MLB this year, and destroy it and the World Baseball Classic if things go right. He would be a free agent next season. I’m excited to watch him in the WBC this year.
Takeya Nakamura, 3B, 29 – .242/.322/.452, .325 wOBA
I was hesitant to put Nakamura on this list. As I’ve mentioned before, he is a rather rotund figure, and I think that would scare most teams off. He is a pure power hitter. He gives you little average, a decent walk rate, and projects to strike out at a rate similar to Wily Mo Pena. Combine the strikeout problems with his body type, and I can’t see him going to the MLB. He would have the same problem as Lee above him, where he would have to play first base in the MLB. However, the slight power edge he has on Lee is more than given up in his strikeout rates and contact ability. Plus, Lee was an NPB rookie, while Nakamura has been around for a bit. Maybe he has a monster year and somebody decides to try to whip him into shape, but I doubt it.
Takashi Toritani, SS, 32 – .279/.356/.403, .319 wOBA
I love Toritani. He’s a little bit old, but he was an international free agent this year and will be again next year. His walk rates are just fantastic. When you couple that level of on base percentage with decent contact ability, not horrible power, and strong defense, you’ve got a pretty valuable player. Even if it’s only for a year or two due to his age, I think Toritani could be a steal. Plus, he had a down year last season. If he bounces back from that, it would push his projections even higher. I think he compares favorable to the Athletics’ Hiroyuki Nakajima, except for the age. However, if teams think his recent problems are due to age, then they should stay away. But for now, there are rumblings that he could be had fairly cheaply. I think he could give you a few seasons of a pretty good bat and a great on base percentage at either shortstop or second base. I see him as a slightly better Akinori Iwamura.
Hisayoshi Chono, OF, 28 – .281/.341/.400, .314 wOBA
The youngest of the elite NPB hitters, Chono has only been in the NPB for three seasons. In those seasons, he has shown fairly good all around hitting ability. He plays in a park that inflates home runs, but that’s okay because his home run numbers are just okay anyway. He gives you solid performance in all areas. In the MLB, I see him as a decent average, decent doubles power, double digit home runs, a decent walk rate, and a pretty good strikeout rate. Plus, he’s pretty young, and inexperienced, and he could easily grow some. Think os someone like a (far) lesser version of Hunter Pence, who does nothing exceptionally but everything well. I would like to see a bit more power out of Chono, especially given the park he plays in, but I think he could be a decent hitter. The problem is that he would likely have to play a corner outfield position. Unless you’re aggressive in projecting improvement (which I’m not since he got worse since the previous season) I can’t see Chono holding down a starting gig for very long. Of course, if he’s a very good defender that could change. He would be an excellent fourth outfielder, though.
Yoshio Itoi, OF, 31 – .276/.353/.382, .313 wOBA
Itoi is extremely similar to Chono, except older and a little worse. However, Itoi can play center field, and is regarded as a pretty good defender. Other than that, he’s similar to Chono with the bat. Pretty good at everything, but a little worse than Chono. Decent average and doubles power, not very good home run totals, pretty good walk rate and strikeout rate. Also similar to Chono, his numbers declined from the previous season, which is concerning. He should be an international free agent next season. If that’s the case, I would see him as a solid fourth outfielder. I wouldn’t give him a starting job unless you think he would be great in center. I don’t think he will hit enough to start, but I think he could still be a valuable player in a reserve role.
For the most part, these players wouldn’t be very good hitters in the MLB right now. But, they would be able to hold their own. Plus, they’re young and have a lot of room to grow. These are players to keep an eye on for the future, either as an MLB team, or to watch some of them become stars in the NPB.
Ryosuke Hirata, OF, 24 – .253/.309/.421, .306 wOBA
Hirata had a fairly poor season last year with the bat. He needs to work on his plate discipline. However, of not is that he had a poor season with the bat in a huge pitchers park. He hit for pretty decent power, made all the more impressive playing in that stadium. He was the only player for his team other than Tony Blanco to hit double digit home runs. Plus, Hirata did it in only 269 at bats. He won’t be anything right now until he learns some contact ability, but the power is impressive. He may never become a huge star in the NPB since his main attribute is power in a stadium that saps power more than any other, but he could grow and provide good value for an MLB or NPB team. He has a long way to go, but has potential.
Sho Nakata, UT, 23 – .249/.295/.421, .304 wOBA
Immediately behind Hirata is a very similar young player in Sho Nakata. Just like Hirata, Nakata needs to work on his contact abilities and plate discipline, but has great power. He’s also a year younger. However, Nakata does not play in a stadium that suppresses his power, so he will likely become a huge star in the NPB. He was chosen to play in this year’s World Baseball Classic. Also, Nakata has played many positions in the infield and outfield so far in his career. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing, or means he can’t field very well. Nonetheless, just like Hirata, he has youth and impressive power on his side.
Hayato Sakamoto, SS, 24 – .273/.313/.397, .301 wOBA
Sakamoto is already a young player on the rise. He had a down year in 2011, but an excellent season this past year. He was among the league leaders in many offensive categories this past season, though he did play in an offensive park with the Giants. He is a little overshadowed by playing with both Shinnosuke Abe and Hisayoshi Chono, but there no doubt he is in line to be the next big Giants star. He doesn’t have huge power, but is solid in pretty much every area. He is helped by his park, but if he puts up another season similar to last year, look for him to shoot up the projections. Plus, he’s only 24 years old, and plays shortstop. He was also chosen for the WBC team. He needs to walk a little more, but he’s a rising young player at a premium position who makes it easy to dream on.
Katsuya Kakunaka, OF, 25 – .276/.318/.372, .296 wOBA
Kakunaka is a little older than the other players, but he had a breakout year with the bat his past season. He doesn’t strike out much, and he hits a good amount of doubles, but he never hits home runs or walks very much. He needs to improve in his plate discipline if he’s going to make something of himself in the MLB. He also made the WBC team. With his lack of power, he’s going to need to be great in terms of contact ability and on base percentage. Plus, it would help if he played center field, I’m not sure if he can. He took a big step forward last year, and he’s going to need to take another if he is to rise among the ranks of the NPB elite.
Takahiro Okada, 1B/OF, 25 – .254/.302/.382, .295 wOBA
Okada probably won’t become much. He’s a solid NPB player with the bat, but he has no exceptional tool. Plus, he is a first baseman/corner outfield. Those are the positions where you need to hit the most. He would have to take a massive step forward to be an exciting prospect. He’s got youth on his side still, but at 25 he is going to need to learn to walk more, strike out less, and hit for more power if he’s going to be great. Basically, he would need wholesale improvement.
Hideto Asamura, IF, 22 – .265/.310/.393, .290 wOBA
Asamura is very young, and plays around the infield. However, he hasn’t hit super well to date, and his numbers actually got worse this past season. He rarely strikes out, but otherwise doesn’t do anything exceptionally well. He does everything else decently though, and plays in a park that suppresses offense a bit. He would need to make major strides. Though, he’s 22 years old. He’s got a lot of time to figure it out, and his early returns are promising.
Shota Dobayashi – IF, 21 – .231/.296/.376, .287 wOBA
Dobayashi was a rookie last season for Hiroshima. He showed some impressive power for his youth, but his strikeout rates were just awful. In addition, his contact abilities were lacking, and his walk rates were decent at best. But, as mentioned, his power was pretty good, especially for a rookie. He has a lot of work he needs to do, especially cutting down on strikeouts. But he’s only 21 years old (younger than this author, frustratingly) and has plenty of time to figure his game out. The talent is there.
Yoshihiro Maru, OF, 23 – .243/.315/.364, .285 wOBA
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, IF, 21 – .229/.295/.368, .282 wOBA
Shogo Akiyama, OF, 24 – .262/.299/.379, .279 wOBA
All three of these players are decent young talents who would need to take major steps forward to be great. Maru has pretty good walk rates, Tsutsugo is very young and has pretty good power, though it’s been declining with playing time, and Akiyama hits for decent average and improved this past year, despite being a little older. Any of these players could become pretty good hitters with some improvement, especially Tsutstugo due to his youth and better raw tools.