It’s time for an update on NPB players who may be making their way to MLB in the near future. Here are the seven players that we are keeping track of at MLBTR. Learn more about their play styles and background in the previous article.
Let’s get started.
Players likely available in the 2023 offseason (most rumored or have publicly announced desire to play in MLB)
1. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Orix Buffaloes
The two-time Pacific League MVP has had a “slow” start to the season by his standards. Yamamoto has been consistent and his numbers are as solid as ever, with a 2.35 ERA, 27.6 K%, 6.4 BB%, 2.15 FIP in 38 ⅓ innings, but he’s yet to have the signature performance of the season.
For reference, the Buffaloes ace’s best month last season was June, with a 0.56 ERA in four starts, most notably tossing his first career no-hitter.
Yamamoto was scratched from his planned start this past weekend due to illness but has not been limited by injury thus far, despite concerns.
2. Shota Imanaga, Yokohama DeNA Baystars
In five starts, Imanaga has a 3.48 ERA, 28.4 K%, and 1.6 BB% in 31 innings. The Baystars ace was off to a hot start to the season, tossing 8 innings of shutout ball in his season debut and following it up with a 7-inning shutout performance where he struck out 12. He’s struggled in the following two starts, however, giving up four runs in five innings and five runs in four innings respectively, and allowing a total of four homers.
In his most recent start this past weekend, Imanaga had a solid performance against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, allowing three runs in seven innings. The three runs came from two home runs, however, so the long ball continues to be an issue for the left-hander in the early going.
Imanaga officially earned his domestic free-agent rights on May 19, but remains focused on the season. “I never thought I’d be in this position to earn this [free agency], and I want to give back to everyone who has been a part of my journey,’ Imanaga said.
3. Kona Takahashi, Saitama Seibu Lions
Takahashi has had an impressive start to the year. In his eight starts, the Lions ace has an NPB-best 1.47 ERA, holding hitters to a .182 average, striking out 22.9% of hitters and walking 13.6%, in 55 innings. The biggest factor in his improvement is increased average fastball velocity, which has gone up to 94 mph, compared to 91.56 mph last season. His splitter has been the perfect complement to his improved fastball, hitters are only .068 against it.
Beyond his elite numbers, Takahashi’s strong mentality and his pride as the Lions’ ace have particularly stood out. After his most recent start where he tossed six innings of shutout ball, Takahashi said, “I wanted to be on the mound longer than the opposing pitcher. In order to continue improving, I will reflect on this start so that I can go even deeper into games.”
He outdueled Yamamoto in their April 22 matchup, holding the Buffaloes to two runs and five hits in a complete game. He almost outdueled Yamamoto again on May 6, exiting the game after six innings of one-run ball, but the bullpen was unable to keep the lead.
Takahashi has certainly met the challenge from GM Watanabe and Manager Kazuo Matsui thus far
4. Yuki Matsui, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Became the fastest pitcher in NPB to reach 200 career saves earlier in the season. The Golden Eagles closer has been dominant as ever and has not allowed an earned run in his 12 appearances. He has 6 saves on the season, and hitters are hitting just .095 against him. The lefty hasn’t gotten much work as other relievers so far, as the Eagles have the second-worst record in NPB and sit in last place in the Pacific League.
Matsui officially earned his overseas Free Agent rights on April 27. “It’s still April, so there’s not much to think about,” Matsui said in a statement.
5. Naoyuki Uwasawa, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
After a nightmarish start to the season, Uwasawa has settled down and is finding his groove. In his last four starts, he’s completed at least 7 innings and has a 2.35 ERA in 30 ⅔ innings. The Fighters right-hander has a 3.72 ERA on the season, striking out 17.9% of hitters and walking 10.8% in 46 innings.
In his most recent start, the 29-year-old right-hander tossed his first shutout since 2018 against the Saitama Seibu Lions, where he fanned 9 and allowed just 4 hits.
Younger stars to keep an eye on
1. Roki Sasaki, Chiba Lotte Marines
The “Monster of Reiwa” is off to a dominant start, posting a 0.84 ERA, fanning 43.5% of hitters while walking just 4.3%. Hitters are only hitting .124 against him, and he has a FIP of 0.65.
He’s been sidelined since his May 5 start where he exited in the 5th inning because of a blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand. He was initially scheduled to pitch on May 21 but was pushed back to May 28, after the starting rotation was reshuffled by a rain-out.
2. Munetaka Murakami, Tokyo Yakult Swallows
The young Swallows slugger had a disastrous first month of the season. In 25 games, he hit .157/.311/.265, 2 HR, 15.5 BB%, 37.9 K%, and 12 RBI in 103 plate appearances. Murakami-sama is beginning to look more like his Triple-Crown winning self in May, hitting .278/.381/.556, 4 HR, 14.3 BB%, 23.8 K%, and 10 RBI in 63 plate appearances (as of May 19).
One of the major factors in Murakami’s early season slump is his struggle to hit right-handed pitching. Murakami is hitting a measly .169 against right-handed pitching, and striking out at a 37.7% rate. The slump is also affecting his already sub-par defense at third base where he has 8 errors, the most out of all position players in NPB.
The following players have either expressed their desire to play in the big leagues, been rumored by Japanese media, or have drawn interest from MLB scouts but have factors (age, team stance on posting system) preventing a potential move. I’ve also added top performers who may be of interest.
Kazuma Okamoto, Corner Infielder, Yomiuri Giants; Shosei Togo, right-handed starting pitcher, Yomiuri Giants; Keiji Takahashi, left-handed starting pitcher, Tokyo Yakult Swallows; Taisei Ohta, right-handed reliever, Yomiuri Giants; Hiroto Takahashi, right-handed starting pitcher, Chunichi Dragons; Kaima Taira, right-handed starting pitcher, Saitama Seibu Lions; Atsuki Yuasa, right-handed reliever, Hanshin Tigers; Shinnosuke Ogasawara, left-handed starting pitcher, Chunichi Dragons; Shunpeita Yamashita (NEW!), Orix Buffaloes; Tatsuya Imai (NEW!), Seibu Lions; Takahisa Hayakawa (NEW!), Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles; Atsuki Taneichi (NEW!), Chiba Lotte Marines