Free Agent Japanese Players in ’08

There are some Japanese players looking to make the jump this season. Not including them on the last couple of posting was a problem of lack of information on my part. But I’ll do my best to show what we might expect from them. The ability to transition is still tough to call. Daisuke Matsusaka was very good, but not quite what Boston expected, whereas even Theo was shocked at how good Hideki Okajima was. And most were surprised that Kei Igawa couldn’t even hack it as a bottom of the rotation guy. One thing is clear though, hitters are probably easier to judge, their abilities translate well enough. And they lose power. Both Hideki Matsui and Akinori Iwamora lost some power coming over from the Pacific, but their other categories weren’t too badly hurt. Which is why the #1 prospect is a hitter.

Kosuke Fukudome

Besides having a name that could be hilariously mispronounced in so many ways, baseball fans may know him from some late-inning heroics in the WBC. He is a great right fielder, with a killer arm, and is only 30. He most likely doesn’t have the speed to be a regular CF in the US, but what’s really important is, of course, his bat. According toFukudome japanesebaseball.com, he is a career .305/.398/.543 hitter, but those numbers are dragged down by his early career where he was playing 3B and SS. Since being a full time OF, he had blossomed, only posting an OBP below .400 once, and was over .430 the last 3 times. He hits with power, and is known as a gap hitter. He has hit over 30 HRs twice, but he probably can’t be counted on to hit with serious power in the US. Between his hitting style and the historical drop in power for Japanese players, he may be more of a 15 HR guy. But his patience probably will translate wonderfully to the majors. According to baseball prospectus, he:

relies on patience and a level left-handed swing. At roughly 6’0” and 190 pounds, Fukudome isn’t a classic slugger. There is power in his bat, but it’s of the line-drive variety. Looking at his numbers over the years, it is noteworthy that he has challenged the single-season doubles record in Japan–52 by Yoshitomo Tani in 2001–on several occasions. Last season’s 47 doubles is the highest total ever by a Central League player.

Reminds me of Ryan Church, only much better. I should say, Chuch hit 15 HRs and 42 doubles last season. Fukudome probably would do similar there, but instead of hitting .272 with a .349 OBP (like Church), he’s probably closer to .300/.400. He is worth looking at, and if he could play center, where Church probably should be playing, then maybe even worth pursuing. But there are other teams that need a player like that more, and will probably be able to show that with salary. Fukudome wouldn’t be a bad investment for the Nats, but they do have Church. If Fukudome does anything for this team, maybe it will show how good Church’s bat is compared to other center fielders. Of course, if there is something the Nats really like about him, they could also put him at RF, but Kearns probably has another year there to prove himself (and isn’t that far from being a gold glover himself).

Hiroki Kuroda

The best starting pitcher on the entire free agent market may be Kuroda. He is 33, and hasn’t had a great W-L record, but he’s played on some really poor Hiroshima Carp teams. His K/BB ratio looks nice at 3/1 for his career, but even nicer when you realize that it’s closer to 4/1 over the last 6 or 7 years. His career ERA is a solid 3.69, also dragged down by his early career, he’s only exceeded that average once in the last 7 seasons. There is some worry about his arm, mostly because he pitched more complete games than most other pitchers in the league. And Japanese pitchers tend to burn out younger than American pitchers, because of the way they’re used. He’s probably yet another guy whose abilities need to be taken advantage of sooner rather than later, not exactly what the Nats are looking for. And its not like he’s a star in the making, he’s projected by places like Prospect Insider to be more of a back-of-the-rotation starter. If he was lauded the way Daisuke was, I’d suggest the Nats had a chance to get their ace and should pursue him. But his age and ceiling just make him another free agent not appealing to a rebuilding team.

Koji Uehara

A former starter who most likely will continue to pitch in relief, he could be a quality pitcher in the US. His K/BB ratio for his career is close to being a ridiculous 7/1. He has some questions on the health of his shoulder, but he looks like he could add significantly to someone with a weak bullpen (Yankees?). But, it’s hard to imagine why the Nats would need to spend money on a reliever.

Masahide Kobayashi

Kobayashi is a closer for Bobby V’s Chiba Lotte’s Marines. According to the great website MLB Trade Rumors, Mr. Valentine is very high on Kobayashi’s abilities. He can strike people out, and has some good peripherals (4/1 K/BB, close to 10 K/9 since he’s been a full time closer). He may be a closer and probably would be at least a pretty effective reliever for someone out there who doesn’t have a bullpen with Cordero, Rauch, Ayala, Rivera, and Colome. I know you know who’s there, it just makes me happy to talk about it.

Tomohiro Nioke

Nioke is an interesting one for the Nats. Unlike the other players, he plays somewhere they could actually use some help – SS. Even if you are a big believer in Guzman, or Lopez, there’s nobody out there who thinks both are really valuable starters is there? I mean, you start believing that we have enough with Belliard, Guzman and Lopez at Middle Infield, that we have enough with Wily Mo, Church and Kearns, with Zimmerman, Young and Johnson, well what’s left to fix? Are you saying we just need a good hitting catcher and suddenly we’d stop being among the worst hitting teams in baseball? No, and middle infield seems to be more of a problem than most places. So if they could find a great SS, they should go after him.

But is Nioka that guy? Well, he has some pop for his position, hitting over 20 HRs in 4 seasons. And we know that these should go down in the US. His splits are a respectable .285/.334/.440, but they aren’t spectacular. Also, at 33 as well, he may be closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He is intriguing because his numbers are so close to big time free agent Torii Hunter (.271/.324/.469) but remember these are numbers in the AL, not the Nippon League. If we see only a slight drop in average, and the expected drop in power, you may be looking at a .275/.320/.400 hitter. Of course, I’m not doing real math here, just off the cuff numbers. But yuck, I can expect that out of the 3 guys we have (who need to be upgraded in some way). So no, not worth it for the Nats. Seems to be more of a fill-in guy than a real stud FA signing.

My take is that while there is something interesting about each of these players there aren’t many worth pursuing. However, if either of the relievers can be had cheaply enough, there is no such thing as having too much of a good thing. You can always package a few together and see what you can get in a trade.

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