Japan's Free AgentsIn a recent article at Baseball Prospectus I identified a group of players eligible for free agency with possible ties to the Major Leagues. The complete list, and a running discussion of the players on it, can be found at Michael Westbay's excellent site Japanese Baseball. I'd like to spell out the basics of my BP list here and give you an update on the status of the players it contains.
If you've read my BP article, you'll know that I grouped the short list of target free agents by my assessment of their chances to impact an MLB roster. The groupings are done in 3 tiers, where the top tier are players with a chance to join the household names Matsui, Matsuzaka, and Ichiro. The next tier are players who can help an MLB club, but fall short of star power. The final tier are marginal types who could make a roster, but look more like bench fodder.
Kosuke Fukudome - outfielder
Hiroki Kuroda - right-handed starting pitcher
Hitoki Iwase - left-handed reliever
Of this top tier, Fukudome and Kuroda remain. Iwase was recently offered several attractive options by his home club, Chunichi. With a chance to set a number of NPB records, Iwase has chosen to remain at home. I can't say I blame him. Sometimes being the biggest fish in a slightly smaller pond is a great life to lead. Fukudome has been linked to the Octagon group in terms of his ongoing MLB representation and rumor has it that they've fielded a lot of interest among the clubs on the US side of the pond. Persistent rumors have linked the Cubs to the most aggressive pursuit of Fukudome, but I expect that the bidding for his services will heat up among several teams before it's all said and done. Count the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants among those teams, with the Giants seeking to be very aggressive in keeping the star outfielder in Japan. Watch the money there. Kuroda also figures to be on the Cubs radar, but with the real lack of depth in the MLB free agent pitching ranks, I imagine that we'll see some unexpected players emerge alongside the big money organizations. Kuroda is in a prime position to score a huge payday somewhere.
Yasuhiko Yabuta - right-handed reliever
Masahide Kobayashi - right-handed reliever
Kazuhiro Wada - outfielder
The second tier is headlined by a pair of bullpen mates from Bobby V's Chiba Lotte Marines. Both of these guys will defect to the Majors with a lot of rumors swirling about them in the US. Yabuta is a late inning set up guy with real MLB potential and Kobayashi is a fireballing closer with a chance to do some nice work as well. Recent ties to Kansas City, and former Nippon Ham manager Trey Hillman, have been cited with respect to Yabuta (a WBC standout) but other teams are also rumored to be in pursuit. The same can be said of Kobayashi, who figures to draw interest from the big time organizations looking to drop cash on a bridge to the closer. Kazuhiro Wada may or may not make the jump. The interest in him could dry up quickly with his age and likelihood of decline a reality, but small market clubs could jump at the chance to fill a hole with a short term solution at a bargain price. I expect Wada will get a better offer from Seibu and severl other NPB teams.
The Bottom Tier
Yoshinobu Takahashi - outfielder
Takahiro Arai - 3B
Daisuke Miura - right-handed pitcher
Takahashi is going to stay with Yomiuri, if he hasn't already made his plans public. His status as a Giant and the payday he will enjoy to stay with the first place club will be more than he can get in the US. Arai on the other hand stands a chance at an MLB look. I would guess that he will be on a new NPB roster next season, leaving Hiroshima, but he might take a long hard look at a lesser role in the Majors as a personal challenge. Miura is a junk baller who likely will stay put, but as I mentioned earlier, there are desperate MLB clubs looking to fill out rotations and Miura can certainly give you innings.
That's it for the current news. As I hear anything regarding any of the names on this list, or the list available at Japanese Baseball, I will post them here. Stay Tuned.