Darvish Headlines Potential Asian Free Agents

With varying degrees of success, major league teams have used the Pacific Rim to fill holes during the free agency period for more than 15 years. Big-ticket acquisitions such as Kei Igawa, Kaz Matsui and the late Hideki Irabu have been seen as busts as their team’s investment far exceeded their on-field production. However, the Asian market has also proved to be fertile as it produced stars such as Japanese stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui and Taiwan’s Chien-Ming Wang, while also yielding Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Koji Uehara (all Japanese)

While righthander Yu Darvish dominates this year’s international market rumor mill, there are several others should be monitored if they do indeed hit the free agent market.

Yu Darvish, rhp, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

While there have been conflicting rumors whether or not Darvish will be posted, the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder is truly the prize of the class. Of mixed Iranian and Japanese heritage, Darvish made his professional debut in 2005, and has starred for Japan in several international events. Many scouts consider him the top pitcher not yet in Major League Baseball.

Darvish has everything a team looks for in a frontline starter: stuff, aggressiveness, and durability. He throws five pitches, highlighted by a plus fastball that sits 92-95 mph and has touched as high as 99 mph in relief at the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Darvish’s second best offering is a plus low-80s slider that he will use in almost any count. Darvish will mix in a lively cutter that can reach the high 80s.  On occasion, he will get ahead with a slow mid-70s curve while showing the ability to bury a 90-91 mph split if needed.

He stays tall in his delivery and possesses good athleticism that allows him to consistently repeat his delivery and command his pitches. His frame should allow him to handle the rigors of pitching every fifth day over an MLB season, which is about three weeks longer than Japan’s regular season.

After seeing him in several international events, USA Baseball National Team general manager Eric Campbell was impressed not only by the pure stuff but “how good the command of the fastball and the slider were. He pitches well off of both of them and he pitches aggressively in the zone.”

The main knock scouts had on Darvish in the WBC in 2009, when BA ranked him as the event’s No. 1 prospect, was that he “pitches too much off his secondary stuff when he has the fastball to simply blow hitters away.” However, Darvish seems to have somewhat alleviated these concerns with a tweak in his approach. Padres Pacific Rim Scouting Coordinator Trevor Schumm has seen Darvish for several years and saw how “the change to a uniform baseball in the past year has had an impact. His velocity has bumped up a tick and he has gone more to the power stuff.”

“He is better prepared to get guys out over here in the States. He is not like some of the Japanese pitchers in the past with decent fastballs that just do not use it enough.”

Beyond the standard cultural adjustment and the change to pitching every fifth day, Darvish does not seem to possess any red flags, beyond the workload often shouldered by Japanese pitchers. 

Norichika Aoki, of, Yakult Swallows

Japan’s best position player who could be posted this winter is Aoki, a 29-year-old lefthanded hitter. At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Aiki has 60-65 speed and a contact-oriented offensive approach. He has a track record for hitting including the Olympics and WBC.

Aoki’s main strength is his control of the strike zone. Although Aoki has spent several years hitting third, a National League talent evaluator said he profiles as a top-of-the-order hitter in the majors.

“He shows the ability to alter his approach when needed,” the evaluator said. “He won’t hit a lot of home runs over here; what he did this year (four home runs) is pretty representative of what he might do here.

“He is very good at letting the ball travel and hits a ton of balls to the opposite way to left field. From a physical standpoint, he utilizes a similar hitting approach to Ichiro but with significantly less bail.”

Although he slid over to left field during international events in deference to Kosuke Fukudome, he plays center field for his Japanese team and won the Japanese equivalent of the Gold Glove from 2006-2010. Aoki would be a plus defender in a corner spot, though there is some debate as to whether he would be average or plus in center field.

Because Aoki does not have the power to profile in a corner, he will need to be able to hit enough and stick in center field as an everyday player. Much like the rest of Japan, Aoki saw his offensive statistics dive in 2011. Up to this year, Aoki was a career .339/.421/.497 hitter with mid-teen home run pop and good stolen base numbers. In 2011, Aoki slipped to a .292/.360/.358 triple slash line with just four homers and eight steals.

Hiroyuki Nakajima, ss, Seibu Lions

The 29-year-old Nakajima has established himself as the everyday shortstop and primary three-hole hitter for Seibu since 2004. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound switch-hitter put up impressive offensive statistics in 2011 with a .297/.354/.433 triple slash line with 16 home runs and 21 stolen bases.  Even in a depressed offensive environment, Nakajima’s numbers did not vary greatly from his career figures.

According to one Pacific Rim observer, Nakajima does not have any standout carrying tools but possesses a well-rounded package. He has the range to stick at shortstop but his fringy arm will most likely force a shift to the other side of the bag. “To me, he’s a second basemen over here. He gets on base, grinds out at-bats, and plays solid defense but there will not a be a lot of home runs or stolen bases. You hope the average holds up because the defense will be solid. I don’t think he is a high impact guy.”

If he hits for average, Nakajima can profile as a second-division regular as he lacks much in secondary skills. If not, look for Nakajima to fill a utility role.

Tsuyoshi Wada, lhp, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

As he has accrued the necessary years of service, Wada is a free agent in 2011 who does not need to go through the posting process. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder seemed to have benefited from the new baseball as he experienced a jump from his career numbers, as he posted a 1.51 ERA in 2011 with 168 strikeouts and just 40 walks in 185 innings.

Wada, 30, is a pitchability lefty whose stuff is modest, with an 87-88 mph fastball at best. His solid-average slider is his best pitch, and he throws a slow curveball and split-finger pitch as well. He’ll have to use any of those pitches in any count to succeed in the States.

“He’s not very physical so the stuff needs to show up every five days,” one evaluator said. “He’s pretty economical and intelligent, so it is probably not a huge concern. If he was righthanded he probably wouldn’t get away with it.”

A stalwart on Japan’s national teams as both an amateur and as a pro, Wada has logged heavy workloads but has held up to this point.

Hisashi Iwakuma, rhp, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

The Athletics posted the winning bid last offseason to negotiate with Iwakuma, a $19.1 million post that ranked third in the history of the process behind only Matsuzaka ($51.1 million) and Igawa ($26 million). However, Iwakuma turned down a four-year $15.25 million contract and returned to pitch for Tohoku in 2011. Iwakuma, 30, is a free agent and will bypass the posting process.

At 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, Iwakuma will pitch with an average fastball that has touched 93-94 mph in international events. The offering more often ranges from 87-91 mph over the course of the regular season. He dazzled at the ’09 WBC with an average slider that plays up due to his plus command and swing-and-miss split-finger pitch that is his best offering. He gets groundballs with all three pitches when he’s at his best. A healthy Iwakuma with average velocity could be a back-end starter.

The main question on Iwakuma is durability. His 2011 season was limited to 119 innings due to back and shoulder problems. Iwakuma experienced shoulder injuries in 2006 and had elbow surgery in 2007. He stayed healthy in the three years preceding 2011.

“He came back this year and his velocity was down from previous years,” one evaluator said. “He has never been a big velocity guy but I saw below-average fastball velocity this year. He is a guy that can survive on savvy and execution.”

Wei-Ying Chen, lhp, Chunichi Dragons

Unlike most Asian players his age, the Taiwanese native who has played in Japan is a true free agent at the age of 26.

Chen pitches from a three-quarters arm-slot and has a conventional delivery from the left side. When healthy, the 6-foot, 176-pounder has an average fastball that has flashed better velocity in the past. Much like some of the pitchers on the list, Chen will frequently go to his average slider instead of pitching off the fastball. A slow curveball and a fringe-average splitter round out his repertoire.

Chen experienced a down year in 2011 as he had abdominal and leg injuries leading to reduced velocity and a strikeout rate of only 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Up to that point, Chen’s career rate was closer to eight strikeouts per nine. Pre-injury, Chen averaged 91 mph with his fastball with that falling to 89 mph in 2011.

“His stuff was down this year. I’ve seen him up to 94 mph at the end of games before and he was a power guy,” an evaluator said. “He was down to an average fastball, maybe a tick below, and some of the other pitches lost crispness as well.”

Chen has shown the ability to change his game as the evaluator noticed how “he paints a little bit better, he’s adapting. He didn’t have the big fastball he used to so he will change location and eye-level more.”

Hyun-Jin Ryu, lhp, Hanwha Eagles (Korea)

Ryu, a physical 24-year-old who has elicited David Wells comparisons in the past, is the most intriguing name from the Korean market. If posted in 2011, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Boras Corp. client would become the first Korean signed from the posting process.

Ryu took the KBO by storm in 2006 as the league’s rookie of the year and MVP while winning the ERA and strikeouts titles. The gold-medal game winner against Cuba in the 2008 Olympics also struck out 17 in a game last season and has become the fastest pitcher to 1,000 strikeouts in KBO history. He pitched seven innings in the ’09 WBC, picking up a win for Korea’s silver-medal team.

Ryu’s plus changeup is his best pitch that he couples well with an average fastball that ranges from 87-92 mph. He has a very good sense of how to pitch and will mix in an 81-84 mph 45-grade slider and a below-average get-me-over curveball.

Much like Wells, Ryu is a good athlete for his size that allows him to consistently repeat his delivery and field his position well. The combination of size and athleticism has led to solid durability as a pro, though he had Tommy John surgery in high school. Although Ryu is listed at 215 pounds, observers agree that he probably weighs more and that he will need to stay on top of his conditioning.

Tae-Hyon Chong — RHP, SK Wyverns Baseball Club (Korea)

The Korean righthanded reliever will be eligible for free agency this off-season as he has accrued the requisite years to bypass the posting process. If signed, he will be the first player to join the Major Leagues directly from the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO).

Chong is coming off a 2011 season in which he pitched to a 1.48 ERA with 39 strikeouts and 28 walks in 52.2 innings. In his 11-year career in the KBO, Chong owns 99 career saves with a 1.93 ERA behind a strikeout rate of 7.1 K/9 and a walk rate of nearly 3.3 BB/9 innings. Additionally, Chong has pitched in several international events for the Korean national team. His main international highlight includes inducing the game-ending double play to give South Korea the gold medal over Japan in the 2008 Olympics. 

On the mound, Chong elicits Chad Bradford flashbacks as he comes from an extremely low submarine arm-slot. Chong features two main offerings including a below average fastball that sits in the low to mid-80s mph and a fringe-average slider ranging in the low to mid-70s mph with frisbee-like horizontal movement. Both offerings play up more than their pure grades would indicate due to Chong’s arm slot and ability to throw strikes with either pitch.

Although the pure stuff is not overwhelming, Chong’s arm slot creates deception and could be problematic for righthanded hitters. If protected from lefthanders, Chong could provide nice value as a one inning one-sided reliever.

Contributing: Wayne Graczyk