Japanese baseball wasn’t immune from the disruptions the coronavirus pandemic caused around the sporting world this year. Despite this, the league managed to pull off a 120-game season.
There were a number of players who likely drew interest from MLB scouts and fans as candidates to one day take their talents to the major leagues. The majority of the players who have the best chance to make the move from Japan to North America in the next couple of years would have to be posted by their teams, which may come with more wrinkles than in past years.
A combination of the revised posting system, which has led to lower returns for NPB clubs, and an MLB free agent market that could be impacted by a season of teams playing without fans may cause some Japanese teams to think twice about parting with big-name players.
Still, there may be a few players who make the move this year and more who follow in the near future. Below are some candidates to keep an eye on for the 2020-2021 offseason.
Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP
B-T: R-R. Born: Oct. 11, 1989. (31)
By far the most intriguing name of the bunch, Sugano crushed any doubts raised by his 2019 season—which many pitchers would’ve gladly taken—with an emphatic return to form in 2020.
Sugano was fully healthy this season and it showed. He won his first 13 decisions and finished the season 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA in 137.1 innings—his third time finishing under 2.00 with at least 137 innings pitched. He also finished with 131 strikeouts and a 0.89 WHIP that was the second-lowest among all NPB pitchers.
The most visible change from 2019 to 2020 was Sugano’s overhauled pitching motion, which turned plenty of heads in Japan. From the windup, Sugano started off facing the batter with his right foot on the rubber and his left a step behind. With his glove around eye-level Sugano twisted his upper half to the right, while keeping his eyes on the catcher, shifted his right foot and picked up his left leg as he began his motion. He’s said the new motion gave him better balance and helped him load up more in his right leg and generate more power. It’s helped him get more out of his fastball and more bite on his slider.
That slider is perhaps the best in Japan and he can control it to both sides of the plate. It’s a devastating offering when he buries it inside against lefthanded hitters. Sugano’s velocity was slightly up in 2020 and he also induced more swinging strikes. He upped his splitter usage and also threw a cutter, curveball and shuuto. His control was as strong as ever.
Sugano is a big-game pitcher with supreme control and incredible command of his pitches. He’s ready for the majors now from a makeup standpoint.
It had long been thought Sugano would have to earn international free agency to pursue a career in MLB, given the Giants’ stance toward the posting system. That, however, was before Shun Yamaguchi dug himself an escape route by getting a promise he could be posted included in his free agent deal in 2016. He pressed the eject button last season and spent 2020 with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Now, the most interesting question of the winter will be whether the Giants will make another exception for Sugano. Few players have done as much for their teams as he has done. Including this year, Sugano has pitched for three pennant winners, was the Central League MVP in 2014 and won the Sawamura Award in 2017 and 2018. He also fields the position well and has three Golden Gloves. The Giants have now indicated that it is Sugano’s decision to make, so if he wants to be posted, he will be available to MLB teams this offseason.
Tetsuto Yamada, 2B
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
B-T: R-R. Born: July 16, 1992. (28)
Yamada hasn’t been very public with his leanings one way or the other on leaving for MLB. He reached the requirements for NPB free agency this year and could qualify for international free agency next season, (if he forgoes his domestic rights and remains with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows) putting him squarely in the posting system sweet spot. The Swallows are also among the NPB teams to have used the system the most, having put up Kazuhisa Ishii, Akinori Iwamura, Nori Aoki and even foreign pitcher Tony Barnette in the past.
There’s going to be a bidding war for his services at home, though. The Swallows have already reportedly put an uncharacteristically high contract on the table. If Yamada decides he’s happy in Japan, following the example of the Yomiuri Giants’ Hayato Sakamoto, another Tokyo-based infielder who MLB scouts had interest in, Japanese teams will be lining up to make a contract worth his while.
The shortened 2020 season wasn’t Yamada’s best. He had upper-body issues in June and was taken off the top team in July in order to work on his physical condition. He was brought back up Aug. 13 and ended up playing in 94 of 120 games. He hit .254 with 12 home runs, a .765 OPS and eight stolen bases.
Yamada has a pretty solid track record to fall back on—though 2020 was statistically close to another down year he had in 2017—and it’s easy to imagine this year was a blip when he wasn’t in peak condition. Yamada has all the tools, he can hit for power, has a good approach and bat speed and runs well. He’s worked to become a solid second baseman. In nine seasons, Yamada is a career .293/396/.524 batter with 214 home runs and 176 stolen bases.
Oscar Colas, OF
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
B-T: L-L. Born: Sept. 17, 1998 (22)
A Cuban outfielder who signed with SoftBank through the Cuban federation in 2017, Colas has garnered attention in both Japan and from MLB teams as a hitter and pitcher. Unsurprisingly, he’s drawn comparisons to Shohei Ohtani.
Colas hit more than he pitched in Japan and spent the majority of his time on the farm. He appeared in seven games on the NPB level in 2019, hitting a home run in his first at-bat and going 5-for-18. He slashed .302/.350/.516 with 19 doubles, a triple, 11 home runs and three stolen bases for the farm team in the Western League that season. He walked 19 times and had 61 strikeouts. Overall, he hit .269 with 18 home runs in 402 at-bats for the farm team from 2017-2019.
Colas, who has a fastball in the 90s, never pitched for the Hawks in either NPB or the Western League. He did, however, toe the rubber for the Hawks’ third team (most NPB clubs only have a top team and one farm club) and pitched against independent and industrial league clubs.
The Hawks have just given Colas free agency and the right to negotiate with MLB teams. As a 22-year-old, he will be subject to MLB’s international bonus spending limits.
Haruki Nishikawa, OF
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
B-T: L-R. Born: April 16, 1992 (28)
The Fighters captain has been lobbying for the team to facilitate a move for him to the major leagues and has stepped up his game accordingly.
In 2020, Nishikawa did the things he usually does well very well. He hit .306 in 115 games, posted a .430 on-base percentage and stole 42 bases. He was also an asset in the outfield. Despite playing fewer games than usual (due to NPB shortening the season) Nishikawa still managed to draw at least 90 walks for the third straight year.
Nishikawa’s speed and his defensive ability could make him an asset, and he’s not a bad hitter, but it’s important he lands in the right situation.
His 2020 batting average is higher than his career average of .286 (a .314 average in 2016 is his only other season above .300) but the rest of his stats fell in line with his career averages. He can find his way on base and can cause trouble when he gets there. He stole 42 bases this season, which would’ve been enough for the stolen base crown last year in a regular 143-game season. He finished with at least 30 each year from 2014-2018. Nishikawa is also a three-time Golden Glove outfielder and has been on the Best Nine team twice.
Nishikawa was set to be a free agent after the 2021 season, but the Fighters have indicated that they will post him this offseason.
Hirokazu Sawamura, RHP
Chiba Lotte Marines
B-T: R-R. Born: April 3, 1988 (32)
A midseason trade to the Chiba Lotte Marines breathed new life into Sawamura, who is free to move to the majors as a free agent this year. There have been reports MLB clubs are interested in him, and he comes without the baggage of a posting fee.
That could be due to a mid-90s fastball—he hit 99 mph during Game 1 of this year’s Climax Series on Nov. 15—and a quality splitter he can throw in the low 90s. He’ll also throw a slider into the mix. Sawamura made 22 appearances for the Marines, with 29 strikeouts in 21 innings.
Sawamura was drafted by the Yomiuri Giants as a hard-throwing righty starter in 2010 and was the 2011 Central League Rookie of the Year. He was later part of the Japan team for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Sawamura moved to the bullpen full-time in 2015 and posted 36 saves that year. He led the CL with 37 the next season.
Then things took a turn.
The pitcher complained of right shoulder problems during camp in 2017 and a team trainer performed an acupuncture procedure. When he didn’t get better, an examination determined he was suffering from nerve damage. Further investigation revealed the damage could’ve been caused by an error during the acupuncture treatment, leading the team to offer an apology.
After not making an appearance on the top team in 2017, Sawamura had a poor 2018 and bounced back somewhat in 2019. The move to Chiba in September seemed to reinvigorate him.
Kohei Arihara, RHP
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
B-T: R-R. Born: Aug. 11, 1992 (28)
Much like teammate Haruki Nishikawa, Arihara is ready to follow former Fighters’ star Shohei Ohtani to the majors and there are rumblings he may get his wish.
He followed up a stellar 2019 with a solid 2020. He finished 8-9 with a 3.46 ERA in 20 starts for a Fighters team that didn’t give him a ton of help. He struck out 106 and finished with a 1.17 WHIP. Arihara has a wide array of pitches and can mix things up well. His main weapon, though, is a changeup with good break that’s among the best, if not the best, in NPB.
His numbers in 2020 were more in line with his career (he has a career 3.74 ERA). In terms of ERA, he’s had three seasons with an ERA below 4.00 and three (including his rookie year) above 4.00.
Arihara could be a solid MLB contributor, and could even be a bargain depending on the contract. The Fighters are posting him this offseason. That’s right in line with the Fighters’ general approach as they posted Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani in the past.
Yasuaki Yamasaki, RHP
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
B-T: R-R. Born: Oct. 2, 1992 (28)
Yamasaki, one of Japan’s top arms out of the bullpen in recent years, fell apart this year. He lost his job as the BayStars’ closer during the season and was bounced around in a few spots out of the bullpen and was sent to the farm for a while.
Yamasaki only made 40 appearances for DeNA in 2020, ending with a 5.68 ERA in 38 innings. His strikeout rate fell as hitters made more contact than in recent years.
But the righthander’s nightmare 2020 is hardly characteristic of his career to this point—making it reasonable to believe this was just a weird year and not necessarily a harbinger of a precipitous decline.
His two-seamer is a pitch that could play at the MLB level, though it did not help him much this season, and he also throws a splitter and a cutter.
Yamasaki has expressed at least some interest in MLB in the future, though it remains to be seen where he’s at after such a rough year, what tweaks he makes and how he bounces back.
Robert Suarez, RHP
B-T: R-R. Born: March 1, 1991 (31)
A hard-throwing Venezuelan, Suarez signed with the Hanshin Tigers during the offseason and won the Central League saves title with 25 in the shortened 2020 season. He made 51 appearances overall, allowed 13 earned runs and struck out 50 in 52.1 innings.
Suarez came out of the Tigers’ bullpen with a mid-90s fastball that he got as high as 100, making him one of 11 NPB pitchers to ever hit that mark. When he hit 100 on Oct. 11, it tied him with Rafael Dolis (who left Hanshin to join the Blue Jays last offseason) for the fastest pitch in team history. They were knocked out of the top spot by Shintaro Fujinami, another name familiar to MLB scouts, who reached 101 on Oct. 19. Suarez also throws a splitter and changeup and mixes in a slider and curveball.
Suarez pitched in the Mexican League before moving to Japan with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks as a reliever in 2016. He was on the Venezuelan team for the 2017 World Baseball Classic and made two appearances before withdrawing with elbow trouble. He was diagnosed with a torn muscle in his right forearm and missed the NPB season after having Tommy John surgery. Suarez made 20 top-team appearances for the Hawks over the next two seasons before joining the Tigers. He was able to let loose as the Hanshin closer and, while his control slipped at points, he held batters to just a .194 average against him and walked 19.
Japanese media reported in early November that MLB clubs, including the Twins, Rangers and Blue Jays, were circling around the Tigers reliever.