Mike Shubin and Dave DeFreitas check in from the Pacific Rim with profiles of two NPB standouts who will become free agents at the end of the season and who could be targets of MLB clubs, and a KBO infielder who could garner more interest after a solid 2016 season.
Takayuki Kishi, RHP, Saitama Seibu Lions (Pacific League, NPB)
Ht/Wt: 5’11”/170 B/T: R/R Age: 31
Kishi declared for Seibu in the 2006 NPB Draft, and the team selected him with the hope that he would replace the recently departed RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka as the ace of the Lions’ staff. He would go on to have a solid 2007 rookie season, posting a 3.40 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 142 Ks in 156.1 IP, and his 11 wins tied Matsuzaka’s team record for a rookie. In 2008, he was named the Japan Series MVP, as Seibu defeated the Yomiuri Giants to win their 13th championship. He has been a consistent presence for the Lions over his 10-year career (including a no-hitter in 2014). His career ERA is 3.04 which is supported by a 1.10 WHIP and SO/9 of 7.3, the latter being comparable with other Japanese pitchers who have made the move to MLB at similar points in their careers, most notably Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP, Mariners, 2012-present) who had a SO/9 of 6.9 in Japan and Kenta Maeda (RHP, Dodgers, 2016-) who had a SO/9 of 7.4 during his NPB career.
Kishi has been no stranger to the DL in recent years –an arm injury limited him to only 16 starts in 2015, and he spent almost two months on the shelf this season with a calf injury. Once healthy, he turned in two subpar outings in mid-June before reeling off three straight starts of at least seven innings of one run ball. His strikeout numbers this year are slightly below his career norm (81 Ks in 106.2 IP) and his walks are a bit up (2.7 BB/9 after 4 consecutive seasons with a BB/9 of 2.0 or lower), but his season’s ERA and WHIP are 2.79 and 1.28, respectively, and one of his most recent outings was a complete game win against the Chiba Lotte Marines, in which he struck out eight and only walked one batter.
Kishi’s fastball sits around 89-to-91 mph and maxes out at 93-to-94 mph, and he can command it to both sides of the plate against both lefties and righties. He also throws a slow 12-to-6 curveball, a slider that he can vary the break on, and a changeup that may be his best pitch. While he doesn’t have the same mid-to-upper 90s fastball that Matsuzaka featured during his NPB career (or the infamous gyroball), his mechanics and pitching style are very reminiscent of the Lions’ former ace.
Should Kishi make the move to MLB, the fact that he doesn’t throw in the middle 90s may actually help him make a smoother transition. Matsuzaka quickly found out that he wouldn’t be able to dominate major league hitters with his fastball the same way he had in Japan, and his ongoing struggle to adjust accordingly led to a tendency to nibble around the strike zone, leading to high stress innings, lots of base runners and big pitch counts. This overly-passive approach was one of the biggest knocks against him during his MLB career. Kishi certainly has the ability to get MLB hitters out with his fastball, but he may have a better understanding of how to add and subtract with his secondary stuff that will better serve him if he was facing big league hitters.
Unlike many of the players we’ve profiled this year, Kishi will actually become an international free agent at the end of the 2016 season. Given the exorbitant price tags on even mediocre free agent starting pitching, Kishi would undoubtedly come at a relative bargain to MLB teams–especially since no posting fee would be involved. The main concern for teams would probably not be about performance, but about how Kishi would respond to the rigors of a 162-game season, where starting pitchers are expected to make 30+ starts. Given his injury history, an incentive-laden deal similar to the one that Maeda signed with the Dodgers (with fewer years) is certainly a possibility. He’s not on the level of Yu Darvish (RHP, Rangers) or Masahiro Tanaka (RHP, Yankees), but Kishi could be an attractive back-end of the rotation starter for a number of teams. – Mike Shubin
Takahiro Arai, INF, Hiroshima Toyo Carp (Central League, NPB)
Ht/Wt: 6’2”/210 B/T: R/R Age: 39
At age 39, Arai is now in his 18th season in NPB. Born in Hiroshima, Arai was drafted by his hometown team with the sixth pick in 1998 NPB Draft, and he would spend the first nine years of his pro career with Hiroshima before signing with the Hanshin Tigers as a free agent prior to the 2008 season. After seven seasons with the Tigers (2008-14), Arai returned to the Carp last season. He sports a career slash line of .279/.339/.454, and he recorded his 2000th career hit earlier this season, along with his 300th home run.
Arguably one of the top players in NPB during his first stint with the Carp, Arai hit for power and a relatively high average from both corner-infield positions. His best season came in 2005 when he hit .305/.353/.603 with 43 homers and 30 doubles, and won the Central League MVP Award. He was never able to reach those lofty numbers again, but he did hit 25 and 28 home runs, respectively, over the next two seasons before signing with Hanshin. A stress fracture in his back limited him to only 94 games in his first year with the Tigers (2008), but he would appear in all 144 games for Hanshin from 2009-2011. His production began to slip in 2012 when he hit only 9 homers in 122 games and finished with an OPS under .700 for the first time in his career. 2013 was a nice rebound year (.267/.350/.754, 15 HR in 140 games), but his final season with Hanshin was the worst of his career, as he lost his starting job at first base to Mauro Gomez (who is still Hanshin’s first baseman) and was relegated to pinch-hitting and subbing in at first and third base. Not accustomed to a bench role, Arai hit only .244 with 3 homers in 94 games. He returned to the Carp for the 2015 season and reclaimed a starting role, although various injuries limited him to only 108 starts and just seven home runs. However, he has had an excellent 2016 campaign, posting a slash line of .327/.404/.506 with 12 home runs, and playing in 87 of Hiroshima’s 95 games, including 77 starts at first base.
Arai will be 40 years old in January, so it will be interesting to see which direction he chooses to take his career. He’ll be a free agent – both domestically and internationally – at the end of the 2016 season, and even if Hiroshima makes a deep playoff run or ends up winning the Japan Series, it’s hard to envision Arai simply walking away from the game given that he can still be a productive player. The concerns with him are two-fold – one is that his bat has slowed down considerably over the years, and while that can still play in Japan where most pitchers top out in the low 90s, he would likely struggle to make the massive adjustment to high-octane MLB pitching at his advanced age. The second is that he has never been a great defensive player (and is even less so now at age 40), and an MLB team isn’t going to import a DH unless that player is capable of putting up significant power numbers. Therefore, in order to sniff a major league roster, Arai would have to really impress in spring training on a non-roster invitee —and even then he’d be looking at nothing more than an up/down-type role. Given his age and how poorly his 2014 season went as a bench player, a move to MLB, albeit possible, seems unlikely. Arai has nothing left to prove as a player. He’s been an upper-level run producer in the NPB for the vast majority of his career, and I can’t envision Arai now wanting to embark on the MLB quest to finish of his career. -Mike Shubin
Jae-Gyun Hwang, 3B, Lotte Giants (KBO)
Ht/Wt: 6’0”/185 B/T: R/R Age: 29
After a power surge in 2015 that saw a career-high 26 home runs and .870 OPS, Hwang has done well to follow that up so far in 2016. Currently he sits at 19 home runs and a .926 OPS, but has also made significant strides in improving upon the 21% strikeout rate he posted in 2015. Through 97 games this year, he has literally cut that in half—striking out 48 times (with 36 walks) through 428 PAs. My concern with him is that he has a very long swing and really works underneath the ball. He is strong, but is just average in the bat-speed department, and I wonder how effective he will be in making adjustments to stronger pitching he’d face on a daily basis, should he make a move to the U.S. major leagues. He has shown the ability to turn on velocity inside, however he tends to cheat by opening his hips early. Overall, Hwang has been able to put up relatively consistent extra base numbers throughout his KBO career—he has eclipsed 12 home runs once prior to 2015, but has averaged about 27 doubles the past six years. And that’s consistent with the type of player that he would be in the big leagues—enough power to drive it into the gaps, and just enough juice to pop one out on occasion.
His defense presents an issue, as Hwang is limited to a corner-infield spot. He has good hands and has average arm strength, but he is a 30-grade runner and his footwork is slow, which keeps him from being an option at second base. Basically he will catch what he can get to, but is going to be limited laterally. Hwang’s value is really tied to how well he will be able to move around the field, as I don’t think the bat profiles as a third-base-only type of player. Jung Ho Kang (3B, Pirates, 2015-present) is likely the barometer that everyone looks to for KBO infielders, but Kang has the ability to handle shortstop for stretches (which was his natural position in the KBO) and has looked equally comfortable at both second and third base. So even though he isn’t he 40-home-run guy he was for the Nexen Heroes in 2014, he still does damage with the .816 OPS last year.
Hwang was posted last year by the Lotte Giants, but received no bids. This winter, however, he will be an unrestricted free agent so I expect MLB clubs to show a bit more interest. Hwang has some offensive value, but is more limited defensively than say Jung-Ho Kang (2B/3B Pirates)–thus a club will need to have some faith in his hit tool and be the right fit with regards to playing time. Dae Ho Lee (1B, Mariners, 2016-) was a magician with the bat across his KBO and NPB career, but nonetheless has had to consistently prove himself to keep getting at-bats for the Mariners. Hwang is a more flexible defensive player than Lee, but organizational fit will play a large role in whomever decides to give him a chance.
If he’s willing to take on that corner-infield utility role, then he would likely be a fit for several clubs. His monetary demands will be a factor as of course—if he wants Kang-type money (four years, $10.75 million plus incentives) or multiple years on a major league deal and won’t budge, I think he ends up back in the KBO in 2017. However, if he is willing to be creative (i.e. low guarantee w/incentives, or a split contract) then I think he will open up a few more doors. Here’s my full report on Hwang. -Dave DeFreitas