The best Japanese players who may soon join MLB

September 21st, 2023

was honored last weekend at Camden Yards, after he officially retired as a member of the Orioles. Jones earned five All-Star selections and won gold in the World Baseball Classic during his 11 years in Baltimore.

Jones, 38, also has unique insights on the international game from the two seasons he spent with the Orix Buffaloes of Nippon Professional Baseball. Jones predicted accurately that , his former Buffaloes teammate, would have an impressive rookie season with the Red Sox.

Jones is equally convinced that Orix ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto is poised for immediate Major League stardom, once he is posted for MLB clubs during the upcoming offseason.

“I love me some Yamamoto,” Jones told me recently.

Yamamoto is 14-6 with a league-best 1.32 ERA in 150 innings this year. Jones offered praise for the right-hander’s professionalism and work ethic, in addition to his diverse repertoire of pitches. Yamamoto’s athleticism on the mound has been compared to , the Gold Glove winner and two-time All-Star.

“His size will be challenged,” Jones said of the 5-foot-10 Yamamoto, “but he’s got the stability and wants to be great.”

Yamamoto, who turned 25 in August, has won Pacific League MVP honors in each of the last two seasons; he could make it three straight, especially after throwing the second no-hitter of his career earlier this month.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was among the MLB executives and talent evaluators in attendance for the no-hitter. The Red Sox, Dodgers and Cardinals also are among the teams expected to pursue Yamamoto this offseason. Because of Yamamoto’s elite pitchability, one scout projected that that his contract value will surpass the five-year, $75 million deal signed with the New York Mets last winter.

Some talent evaluators believe Yamamoto’s first-year performance in MLB could rival that of 's rookie season with the Rangers in 2012, when the right-hander went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 29 starts. Jones said Yamamoto attacks the strike zone with three to four plus pitches and throws them “with conviction.”

“MLB has lineups that are stacked and powerful,” Jones said, “but Senga has navigated through MLB, and I think Yamamoto will do the same.”

Yamamoto is the highest-profile NPB player expected to move to MLB this offseason. MLB scouts have watched Yomiuri Giants slugger Kazuma Okamoto in recent months, but the Giants have decided not to post him this year.

Okamoto, 27 until next June, leads NPB with 41 home runs this season, after teaming with Yamamoto, Yoshida and on Japan’s World Baseball Classic champions in March. Okamoto isn’t expected to become an international free agent until after 2026, but he could request that the Giants post him after the ’24 season.

Here are several more NPB names to watch as the offseason approaches.

Shōta Imanaga, LHP, Yokohama DeNA BayStars
Age on Opening Day 2024: 30
Imanaga’s name is familiar to American fans, as he started against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic gold medal game. Imanaga was credited with the victory after allowing one earned run in two innings.

While Imanaga permitted a home run to the scorching-hot , he also showed the baseball world why he’s such a highly regarded starter. He struck out with a devastating splitter and caught looking at a 94-mph fastball on the outside corner.

On the FOX Sports broadcast that night, Ken Rosenthal reported that U.S. players noticed similarities between Imanaga and Braves star , due in part to the southpaw’s effectiveness against right-handed batters.

The BayStars plan to post Imanaga this offseason, and Major League teams generally view him as a No. 2 or 3 starter. Yakyu Cosmopolitan (@yakyucosmo) reported last week that 10 teams scouted Imanaga’s most recent start: the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rangers, Phillies, Cubs, Reds, D-backs, Giants and Padres.

Yuki Matsui, LHP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Age on Opening Day 2024: 28
One of the top relievers in Japan, Matsui has the advantage of full international free agency; as a result, he’s attached to neither a posting fee nor MLB Draft pick compensation. Matsui, 27, is very likely to explore options in North America, and many in the industry believe he’d prefer to sign with a Major League team.

MLB clubs often talk about assembling bullpens that feature diverse blends of arm angles and pitch arrays. Matsui will help in that regard. He stands 5-foot-9 and throws a splitter, slider and 4-seam fastball with good carry. (At 16 years old, Matsui famously relied on his slider to strike out 22 batters in a high school tournament game.)

Lefty Yuki Matsui worked a scoreless inning of relief for Team Japan in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. (AP)

Matsui’s repertoire profiles well when evaluated through pitch metrics, which provides greater confidence in his ability to transition to MLB. He’s maintaining a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.7 this season, an improvement over his 2022 numbers. Matsui profiles as a seventh-inning reliever, and possibly better, in a Major League bullpen next year.

Naoyuki Uwasawa, RHP, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
Age on Opening Day 2024: 30
MLB fans are familiar with the Fighters, as the original club of Darvish and Ohtani. The Fighters are known as a player-friendly organization that typically honors the posting requests of star players; Uwasawa is the latest example, although he is not as accomplished as Darvish or Ohtani.

Uwasawa, who has trained at Driveline in the U.S., is viewed as a potential back-end starter or long reliever in the Major Leagues. He relies on breaking pitches, because his fastball velocity does not stand out. This season, he has struck out 6.6 batters per nine innings, relatively low by the standards of MLB starters. But Uwasawa may generate a higher swing-and-miss rate in MLB — at least initially — because he throws an effective forkball that is less commonly seen by hitters in North America.

Kōna Takahashi, RHP, Saitama Seibu Lions
Age on Opening Day 2024: 27
MLB evaluators have been tracking Takahashi this year, even though it’s not yet clear if the Lions will post him. Former Mets infielder is now managing the Lions, and it’s believed that he wants to establish a winning culture before Takahashi moves on to MLB; at present, the Lions are next to last in the Pacific League.

While Takahashi has pitched as a starter for Seibu, some MLB evaluators believe he profiles best as a reliever in the long term. He relies mostly on a fastball and splitter, with his four-seamer climbing as high as 98 mph. One word of caution: Takahashi’s walk rate is slightly higher this year (2.7 per 9 IP) than it was in 2022.

, RHP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Age on Opening Day 2024: 35
As with Yuki Matsui, Tanaka will become an international free agent when his Golden Eagles contract expires at the end of this season. Some in the industry believe he’d consider a return to Major League Baseball, but he’s not enjoying the same level of success in NPB that preceded his move to the New York Yankees before the 2014 season.

In 2013, Tanaka’s ERA with Rakuten was 1.27. Now it is 5.09, along with a 7-10 record. Tanaka went 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA over seven seasons with the Yankees. His 991 strikeouts in the Majors are third all time among Japanese-born pitchers; only Darvish and have surpassed the 1,000-strikeout mark.