The next wave of NPB imports
November 8, 2019
First was Hideo Nomo, in 1995 (no offense to Masanori Murakami). Then a number of pitchers, including ex-Mariners Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Kazuhiro Sasaki. Ichiro broke through in 2001, opening a modest floodgate that swept in Hideki Matsui, So Taguchi, Kenji Johjima, Kazuo Matsui, Norichika Aoki, and plenty of others. Yusei Kikuchi made the jump last season. Next season, a few more veterans of Nippon Professional Baseball may make their debuts in the Major Leagues.
Star outfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo has already been told he'll be posted by his current club, the Yokohama BayStars, for bids from Major League teams. Seibu Lions outfielder Shogo Akiyama is now an unrestricted free agent, free to negotiate with any team worldwide. And now the Hiroshima Carp have announced they will post their popular second baseman, Ryosuke Kikuchi.
All three players have what it takes to play in the big leagues, though their skillsets are quite different. Tsutsugo—cue the Phil Collins track for walk-up music, "Tsu-tsu-tsutsugoh..."—is a bulky power hitter with more than 200 home runs in his nine-year NPB career, all with Yokohama of the (non-DH) Central League. His career batting average of .284 and OBP of .382 are also impressive, and he'd be a solid addition to an MLB lineup seeking punch in the middle of the order. He's not exactly speedy on the bases, but he's not Dae-ho Lee either in that respect; he's played most of his career as a corner outfielder but has also logged time at first base and might fit best as a DH with an American League club. Akiyama, on the other hand, is a well-regarded defensive center fielder who can run a little, with 112 steals in his nine-year NPB career with the Lions. A career .301 hitter, Akiyama has good-if-not-elite pop to all fields (good luck shifting on him) and a fine batting eye (.376 career OBP) that posted a magnificent line of .303/.392/.471 last season. Kikuchi is not just well-regarded defensively, he's the gold standard for infielders—he has seven Golden Glove awards in his 7½ seasons with Hiroshima and makes highlight-reel plays with near-regular frequency.
The Mariners aren't likely to be involved in any of this. For one thing, none of these guys fit with Seattle's youth movement—Tsutsugo is the youngest of them at 28, Kikuchi is 29, Akiyama 31—and for another, the M's already have players like them in the fold. With Daniel Vogelbach at DH, Tsutsugo might be useful as a first baseman, but putting yet another defensively-challenged power hitter in that position would just block the way for first-base prospect (and defensive wizard) Evan White. Akiyama would just add to the logjam of Mariner outfielders. And the M's already have an amazing gloveman at second base in Dee Gordon, and they don't even seem inclined to keep him.
But some teams will. And they should. All three are fun players to watch, as viewers of recent World Baseball Classic tournaments will already know, and could be key pieces to other incomplete clubs. Akiyama is the best all-around player in the group and could bat leadoff or middle-order for a team like San Francisco, Cleveland, or the Cubs that need an upgrade at center field. Tsutsugo might fit well playing corner outfield for the Mets or DHing for Cleveland or the Yankees. And Kikuchi would give a defensive boost to anyone (except maybe the Cardinals) while filling a lineup hole for a team like the Rockies or Nationals.
It'll be interesting to see where each of these NBP stars land and fun to see them play, though for the visitors, next year at the Ballpark by Elliott Bay.