7 Stars From Japan’s NPB Who Could Jump To MLB

A new wave of NPB players have chosen to pursue their big-league dreams in recent years. Just this past offseason, Kodai Senga signed a five-year, $75MM deal with the Mets, Masataka Yoshida signed a five-year, $90MM deal with the Red Sox, and Shintaro Fujinami signed a one-year, $3.25MM deal with the Athletics. One offseason prior, Seiya Suzuki signed a five-year, $85MM deal.

Making the move from NPB to MLB is a complicated process. A player needs to have nine seasons of experience on the first team (i.e. the NPB “major league” club, as opposed to their minor league team) before they can become an overseas free agent. At the earliest, a player drafted out of high school becomes a free agent at age 27 and a player drafted out of college becomes one at age 31. This is a long period of time and can take even longer if a player misses time due to injury. Players who want to make the move sooner instead opt to use the NPB-MLB posting system. The posting system grants all 30 MLB teams the right to negotiate with a player after posting, but the team is subject to paying a posting fee based on the amount of guaranteed money in the contract.

The two main difficulties with the posting system are that 1.) players need their team’s permission to be posted, and 2.) players need to wait several years before being classified as “professionals” rather than “amateurs” under Major League Baseball’s international free agency standards. In order to be considered a “professional” and thus be exempt from MLB’s hard-capped bonus pool system for international amateurs, a foreign-born player must be at least 25 years of age and have at least six years of experience in a professional league (NPB, in this case). Shohei Ohtani knew this and chose to pursue a jump to MLB at age 23 anyway, limiting himself to a signing bonus a little north of $2.3MM because his age made him an “amateur.” Had he waited two more years, Ohtani could have potentially commanded 100 times that sum as a “professional” under MLB’s classifications. It was a sizable bet on himself, but it looks like one that will pay off.

Some teams are traditionally open-minded about letting players pursue their MLB dreams, most notably the Nippon Ham Fighters, while other teams such as the Yomiuri Giants and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have traditionally not given permission to their players when they ask to be posted for MLB clubs.

This series will keep track of NPB players who may be making their way to the MLB in the near future.

Let’s get started with players who may be available in the 2023 offseason.

Players likely available in the 2023 offseason (most rumored or have publicly announced desire to play in MLB)

1. Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Yoshinobu Yamamoto is a 24-year-old right-hander for the reigning Pacific League and Nippon Series champions Orix Buffaloes. He began his career as a starter but moved to the bullpen in 2018 and became one of the best relievers in NPB. He was moved back to the rotation in 2019 and established himself as an elite starter by leading the Pacific League with a 1.95 ERA.

Yamamoto has since become the undisputed ace of NPB. He’s won the Sawamura Award — the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award — and the Pacific League MVP Award in back-to-back seasons. He posted an insane 1.39 ERA, 206 strikeouts, 28% strikeout rate, and 5.4 walk rate in 2021, and followed that up with a 1.68 ERA, 205 strikeouts, a 27.4 strikeout rate, and a 5.6 walk rate in 2022. Yamamoto also won the Gold Glove award in each of those seasons. MLBTR’s Steve Adams wrote more on Yamamoto back in Februrary. Some scouts believe that Yamamoto is ahead of Senga.

The Pacific League MVP relies on a deep six-pitch repertoire and elite control to pile up strikeouts. Yamamoto primarily leans on his mid-90s fastball, splitter, and curveball, but he occasionally mixes in a cutter, two-seamer, and slider. The right-hander is known for his unique training style, with a focus on flexibility and mobility as well as using javelin-like and hammer-like tools. He also has a personal chef/nutritionist to manage his diet. While he has not had a major injury so far in his career, the only concerns with the Buffaloes ace are his slight frame (5’10″, 175 pounds) and adjusting to the grueling MLB schedule. Although he has not thrown on a four-day rest schedule, he has showcased his durability by throwing over 190 innings in each of the past two seasons.

As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes wrote in his recent 2023 FA class power rankings, Yamamoto’s contract could exceed Masahiro Tanaka’s contract with the Yankees in 2014. Tim wrote: “Ten years after the Tanaka deal, I feel Yamamoto is indeed capable of reaching $200MM before accounting for a posting fee.”

Yamamoto is off to another fantastic start this season. In the two games he’s started so far, he has a 0.75 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 12 innings of work. 

2. Yuki Matsui

Yuki Matsui is a 27-year-old left-handed reliever for the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles. He has a career 2.46 ERA, 31.9% strikeout rate, 201 saves, and 68 holds in 447 appearances. Matsui has a four-pitch arsenal featuring a four-seam fastball that goes up to 96mph but averages between 92-94, a dominant splitter and slider, and a lesser-used curveball. 

Matsui is on track to become a true international free agent this offseason, so he won’t need to utilize the posting system to gauge interest from MLB clubs. Japanese media is already speculating that he may sign with an MLB team. Matsui has said he is focused on the upcoming season but is open to the move. Sports Hochi reported that Matsui and the Eagles have discussed future MLB plans during contract negotiations over the years.  

Matsui first hit the national spotlight as a high school player at the 2012 Summer Koshien Tournament, the Japanese equivalent of March Madness, where he set the tournament record for most strikeouts in a single game with 22, and the longest consecutive strikeouts with 10. He finished that tournament with the most strikeouts in a single tournament by a lefty with 68.

Matsui came into the league as a starter but was moved to the bullpen in 2015 and since then has consistently been one of the best closers in the NPB. Out of the seven seasons he was the primary closer, Matsui recorded over 30 saves in five of them. His only “down” year came in 2018 — he still posted a 3.34 that season — but he bounced back with a career-high 68 appearances and 38 saves in 2019.  He was moved to a starting role in 2020, before ultimately moving back to the bullpen at the end of the season where he has remained until now. Matsui struggled adjusting to the WBC ball, which is closer to the MLB ball, so that may be a concern moving forward. 

Despite his difficulties at the WBC, Matsui had a terrific start to the season. He’s thrown five shutout innings, recorded four saves and fanned eight of his 18 opponents (44.4%). Dating back to 2021, Matsui has a 1.26 ERA in 99 2/3 innings of relief work.

3. Shota Imanaga

Shota Imanaga is a 29-year-old left-handed starting pitcher for the Yokohama DeNa Baystars. Fans might recognize Imanaga’s name after his start for Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic final against Team USA. The left-hander has a 3.24 ERA, 24.3 strikeout rate, 7.3 walk rate and 854 2/3 innings in 136 career starts. He had a career year last season, posting a 2.26 ERA, 23.6 strikeout rate and 5.2 walk rate in 143 2/3 innings. He also recorded his first no-hitter in June. 

The Baystars ace primarily throws four pitches, including a 91-94 mph fastball, a changeup that is close to a split-change, a cutter, and a curveball, while occasionally mixing in a slider. While he does not have an overpowering fastball, he has elite command and uses his changeup to get strikeouts. He had shoulder surgery in 2020 but has made a full recovery, and shoulder trouble hasn’t been a recurring issue for him.

Imanaga has expressed his desire to pitch in the big leagues since 2021 but won’t be an overseas free agent until the 2025 season. Sponichi reported in December that Imanaga planned to sign with the U.S.-based agency Octagon to help talks toward a posting agreement. The Baystars have never posted a player before, so it is unclear if they are open to posting Imanaga. However, Imanaga is set to become a domestic free agent within NPB this offseason, so if the Baystars do not allow Imanaga to go to the big leagues, he could potentially move to another NPB team.

Imanaga is yet to pitch for the first team this season as the Baystars manage his workload after pitching for Team Japan. He’s completed his minor league starts with no complications and is set to make his regular-season debut with the first team soon. 

4. Kona Takahashi

Kona Takahashi is a 26-year-old right-handed starter for the Saitama Seibu Lions who had his career-best season last year. In his 26 starts, Takahashi recorded a 2.20 ERA and struck out 18.2% of hitters faced in 175 2/3 innings. He was wilder earlier in his career, walking more than 12% of his opponents, but has improved his command more recently. Takahashi has a career 3.55 ERA, 17.4% strikeout rate, and 9% walk rate in 133 starts. He primarily relies on four pitches: a fastball that sits at around 93-95mph, a splitter, a slider, and a cutter, while occasionally throwing a curveball. 

Takahashi called MLB “the world’s greatest peak” and said he was inspired by former teammate and now Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. “Yusei-san changed my baseball career. I want to give back to him by performing at the highest level and even surpassing him,” Takahashi said. He attended Game 4 of the 2022 World Series in Philadelphia and said “The atmosphere was amazing and I thought that I’d love to pitch here [in MLB].

Despite Takahashi’s wishes, the Lions may not post him this offseason. Lions GM Hisanobu Watanabe said that there are no plans as of right now to post Takahashi. “We’ve just listened to his [Takahashi’s] wishes at this point. We’ve discussed things of that nature with him before, but it’s not a story of when we are going to post him,” Watanabe said. The right-hander wants to be posted in the near future since the earliest he can earn his overseas free-agent rights is 2026. The good news for Takahashi is that his manager is former New York Met Kazuo Matsui, who is open-minded about the possible move. “If he reaches another level as an ace, he might get closer to that goal,” Matsui said

Takahashi is doing his best to reach that next level, with a 0.39 ERA, 27.4% strikeout rate and 23 innings pitched in his three starts. He has not given up a run in 18 consecutive innings.

5. Naoyuki Uwasawa 

Naoyuki Uwasawa is a 29-year-old right-handed starter for the Nippon Ham Fighters who has a 3.29 ERA, 19.9% strikeout rate, and 8% walk rate in 148 career starts. The right-hander throws a variety of pitches, including a low-90s fastball, cutter, slider, splitter, knuckle curve, changeup, and a two-seam fastball (usage in that order). His four-seam fastball was hit hard last season, with opponents batting .272 against it. 

Uwasawa announced his desire to pitch in the majors at his contract negotiations last December and requested to be posted in the 2023 offseason. He said that he was inspired when he participated in the 2018 MLB Japan All-Star Series. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to play in a league with players coming from around the globe, and it’s the type of experience I can’t miss if I have the chance to. I only have a limited amount of time to take on the challenge, so if I have the opportunity I would take it,” Uwasawa said. Uwasawa began working with Driveline last offseason to help prepare his transition to the big leagues, looking to optimize his pitching mechanics and improve the quality of his slider. 

Uwasawa has had a poor start to the season, with a 6.46 ERA and 16.9% walk rate through 15 1/3 innings in his three starts.

Younger stars to keep an eye on

The following players are already some of the biggest stars in the NPB, but are likely unavailable until the 2025-26 offseason due to their age.

1. Munetaka Murakami

Munetaka Murakami, nicknamed Mura-Kamisama (Mura-God), is a 23-year-old corner infielder for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. He burst onto the scene in 2019, with 36 home runs and 96 RBIs, winning the Central League Rookie of the Year Award in the process. He was the back-to-back Central League MVP in 2021 and 2022. Murakami has a career slash line of .281/.405/.583, hitting 160 homers and driving in 430 runs, along with a .988 OPS and 166 wRC+. Murakami’s 2022 season was nothing short of historic. He batted .318/.458/.710 with 56 home runs and 134 RBIs, along with a jaw-dropping 1.168 OPS, 221 wRC+ and 10.3 WAR. He became the youngest-ever Triple Crown winner in NPB and set the single season record for home runs hit by a Japanese player. 

Murakami’s leap in 2022 can likely be attributed to overcoming hard-thrown fastballs. Hitting high velocities was a weakness early in his career, with batting averages of .088 in 2019, .167 in 2020, and .229 in 2021 against fastballs thrown over 150 km/h (93.75 mph). In 2022, Murakami hit .327 against those pitches. Consistent growth in this area will be essential to Murakami’s success in MLB, where the average velocity is higher than the NPB. Murakami is not necessarily known for his defense at third base. In 2022, he recorded 15 errors, the second-highest in all of NPB and the most among third basemen. If he cannot improve his defense as he did with his contact against higher velocity, he most likely projects to be a first baseman in MLB.

Murakami signed a three-year deal this past offseason that came with a guarantee that he will be posted in the 2025-26 offseason. By 2025, Murakami will be 25 years old and shed his “amateur” status under MLB rules, thus exempting him from the bonus pool system. There is a clause that will allow him to get posted sooner if the age-25 rule is lowered.  

Murakami has had a slow start to the season, hitting just .189/.328/.373 with two homers and a 33.3% strikeout rate in a small sample of 66 plate appearances. The good news is that he is walking in 18.2% of plate appearances, and hitting .375 with runners in scoring position.

2. Roki Sasaki

Roki Sasaki is a 21-year-old right-handed starter for the Chiba Lotte Marines, known as “The Monster of Reiwa”, who is entering his fourth season in NPB. Sasaki has been highly scouted since his high school days, throwing 100mph fastballs with ease. He was drafted in 2019 by the Marines, who took a patient approach to his development. The 6’3″ right-hander clearly had an outstanding arsenal, but teams were concerned about his thin frame, in-game stamina, and the repeatability of his mechanics. He did not pitch in 2020 and only started in 11 games and pitched 63 1/3 innings in 2021.

The Marines’ patience paid off, with Sasaki quickly becoming one of the most dominant starters in NPB. In his first full year in the Marines’ rotation, the phenom recorded a 2.20 ERA and 1.70 FIP, striking out 35.3% of hitters while walking just 4.7% in 129 1/3 innings. Sasaki became the 16th pitcher in the history of NPB to pitch a perfect game last April, and followed up the performance by throwing eight more perfect innings in his next outing, before getting pulled with 102 pitches. In the 17 perfect innings, Sasaki struck out 33 of the 51 batters faced. Sasaki has a three-pitch mix, a fastball that averages between 99-101mph and tops out at 104mph, a devastating splitter, and a slider. 

As of right now, there is no clear timetable for Sasaki’s jump to Major League Baseball. Sasaki will not hit the professional experience threshold and does not turn 25 years old until 2026, so unless he takes the Ohtani route of posting before age 25, the earliest that Sasaki will make his MLB debut is in 2027. Sasaki said in March that “Before thinking about the timing of moving to the majors, playing in Japan comes first, and I think that things will become more clear after that.”

Sasaki has picked up right where he left off last season and has yet to allow a run in his two starts. Last week, he outdueled Yamamoto and shut down the Buffaloes, only allowing one hit and striking out 11 in seven innings.

Honorable Mentions

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:

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

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