21 of 30 members for Samurai Japan’s 2023 World Baseball Classic team have been revealed. Manager Hideki Kuriyama — who stepped down as Nippon-Ham Fighters’ skipper after the 2021 season — formally announced the first 12 players in a press conference on January 6. Information about the rest of the team has slowly trickled out since then and the full roster is expected to be known by the end of the month. With MLB and NPB superstars like Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, and Munetaka Murakami, Samurai Japan will strive to become champions of the world for the first time since 2009.
Not all of the players are officially announced yet but let’s take a look at how the stacked Japanese national team looks so far.
Two-way Player (1)
Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
The unicorn himself, Shohei Ohtani, is coming off an American League MVP winning season in 2021 and a runner-up finish in 2022. Arguably the greatest player in the world, he will be reunited with former Fighters’ manager Kuriyama in the hopes of leading Samurai Japan to glory on both sides of the ball. As a batter, he will be the designated hitter. As a pitcher, Kuriyama may deploy him as a closer or save him to start in big games late in the tournament.
Takuya Kai, SoftBank Hawks
Yuhei Nakamura, Yakult Swallows
Takuya Kai and Tsubasa Aizawa split time behind the plate at the 2019 Premier12 but Kai was Japan’s primary backstop at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He’s expected to catch the majority of innings again. There was a time when he had something to offer offensively but Kai hit just .180 with one home run in 2022. Still, the six-time Pacific League Gold Glove winner knows the staff well and provides value with his superb defense and cannon of an arm. But Yuhei Nakamura — who has called some big games for the Yakult Swallows in the Japan Series the past two years — should get playing time too. He’s a much better hitter than Kai and is a three-time Gold Glove winner himself.
Japan’s best offensive catcher, Tomoya Mori, has decided to skip the WBC. So Kuriyama will likely want to add a left-handed hitter like Takumi Ohshiro (Giants) or Shogo Sakakura (Carp) to throw into the catching mix.
Shugo Maki, DeNA Baystars
Tetsuto Yamada, Yakult Swallows
Sosuke Genda, Seibu Lions
Munetaka Murakami, Yakult Swallows
Superstar 22-year-old third baseman Munetaka Murakami is a lock at the cleanup spot and will be in the global spotlight after setting the single-season NPB home run record for a Japanese-born player with 56 bombs last season en route to his second straight Central League MVP award. His teammate, Tetsuto Yamada, is no longer the five-tool threat he once was but still provides a steady bat with plus defense at the keystone. He’s fourth among active NPB players in homers with 271.
His double-play partner will be defensive wizard Sosuke Genda. As one of the top base stealers on the team, the four-time Gold Glover will play a big part of Japan’s running game. However, his below-average bat may be exposed, especially in the latter stages of the tournament against the other top teams. Meanwhile, breakout star Shugo Maki is expected to be the starting first baseman in his first major international tournament. Kuriyama will be counting on him to bring some right-handed thump, as the 24-year-old has an .875 OPS in his first two NPB seasons with the DeNA Baystars.
There’s room for at least two more infielders. Murakami has the hot corner secured but the rest of the infield needs more depth. Samurai Japan veterans Hayato Sakamoto (Giants) and Ryosuke Kikuchi (Carp) are yet to have their names called. The same goes for sluggers Hideto Asamura (Golden Eagles), Kazuma Okamoto (Giants), and Hotaka Yamakawa (Lions).
Sakamoto is the best Japanese shortstop of all-time but injuries have limited his playing time the past couple of seasons. Still, his exclusion would come as a shocker. Asamura, Okamoto, and Yamakawa all profile rather similarly, so there’s probably only room for one of them. Yamakawa, coming off a 41-home-run campaign, has the highest power upside, but is limited to first base while Asamura and Okamoto can both play multiple positions. Kuriyama may also look at someone like Takumu Nakano (Tigers), a young middle infielder with lightning-fast speed.
Masataka Yoshida, Boston Red Sox
Lars Nootbaar, St. Louis Cardinals
Seiya Suzuki, Chicago Cubs
Kensuke Kondoh, SoftBank Hawks
With three Major League players, Japan’s outfield is star-studded. For NPB players with at least 3,000 career plate appearances, Masataka Yoshida and Seiya Suzuki rank fifth and sixth all-time in wRC+ at 174 and 169, respectively. Suzuki made the move from the Hiroshima Carp to the Chicago Cubs after the 2021 season while Yoshida recently signed with the Boston Red Sox after winning the Japan Series with the Orix Buffaloes. They’ll play the corners and be joined by Lars Nootbaar.
Nootbaar, born in California to an American father and Japanese mother, is the first player not born in Japan to make the national team. While many in Japan aren’t familiar with his game, Cardinals fans know Nootbaar as an up-and-coming star that can play all three outfield spots well above-average. He has a strong career OPS+ of 120. Kensuke Kondoh, who signed a mega-contract this off-season with the SoftBank Hawks, will play a key role off the bench. He’s one of the best pure hitters in the league, sporting a .400+ OBP in each of the past six seasons.
Japan will still be looking to add a couple more outfielders, preferably ones that can play center field. Yuki Yanagita (Hawks) — the greatest Japanese player of this generation — has already opted out after a down year in 2022 (by his lofty standards). There’s no shortage of great hitters such as Keita Sano (BayStars), Ryoma Nishikawa (Carp), or Teruaki Sato (Tigers), but with three of the four outfielders being lefties, their inclusion would probably be redundant. Instead, Kuriyama may target a right-handed bat like Yasutaka Shiomi (Swallows), who provides both speed and defense. Koji Chikamoto (Tigers) would also be a fine choice to add speed and defense, though he is another lefty.
Ukyo Shuto, SoftBank Hawks
Shuto is currently the only real “utility man” on the roster. He has no true position, having played six different positions in just the last two years for the Hawks, though third base and center field are where he excels most. He probably won’t get very many at-bats, but he will play an important role off the bench as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. The 26-year-old speedster already has 118 career steals, averaging about 50 swipes per 143 games.
Potential lineup based on the current roster:
1. LF Yoshida
2. DH Ohtani
3. RF Suzuki
4. 3B Murakami
5. 1B Maki
6. CF Nootbaar
7. 2B Yamada
8. SS Genda
9. C Kai/Nakamura
Right-handed Pitchers (7)
Yu Darvish, San Diego Padres
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Orix Buffaloes
Roki Sasaki, Lotte Marines
Shosei Togo, Yomiuri Giants
Taisei Ota, Yomiuri Giants
Atsuki Yuasa, Hanshin Tigers
Ryoji Kuribayashi, Hiroshima Carp
Left-handed Pitchers (2)
Shota Imanaga, DeNA Baystars
Hiroya Miyagi, Orix Buffaloes
On just star-power alone, Japan can go toe-to-toe with any other country. With Team USA lacking commitments from many of their top-tier starters, the Dominican Republic may be the only team that matches the prestige Japan’s pitching staff. The WBC has pitch count limits, so there will be a lot of fluidity with the pitchers rather than everyone being in traditional starter or reliever roles.
The staff will be led by Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Roki Sasaki. It’s possible that Kuriyama will save Ohtani and Darvish for the latter stages of the tournament against better opponents. Meanwhile, Yamamoto — coming off back-to- back Sawamura awards (given to the league’s best pitcher), Pacific League MVPs, and Pitching Triple Crowns — is a prime candidate to get the start against Japan’s biggest threat in Pool B, Korea. And it’s difficult to imagine Japan taking home the championship without some big performances from Sasaki. The 21-year-old phenom made international headlines last April when he threw a 19-strikeout perfect game and followed it up with 8 more perfect innings the very next start. As previously stated, though, the pitching should be extremely fluid so it’s difficult to predict who will pitch in what game.
The rest of Japan’s staff shouldn’t be underestimated either. With bullpen beasts like Taisei Ota, Atsuki Yuasa, and Ryoji Kuribayashi, Kuriyama has a plethora of high-leverage arms to deploy at any moment. Ota (who goes by Taisei) and Yuasa just duked it out for the Central League Rookie of the Year award, while Kuribayashi was the winner of the same award the previous year. Ota’s teammate on the Yomiuri Giants, Togo, is another up-and-coming star who led the Central League in strikeouts last year.
Shota Imanaga and Hiroya Miyagi are currently the only lefties on the roster. Both pitchers finished top 5 in NPB last season in K-BB%. At least two more southpaws, like Rakuten Eagles’ closer Yuki Matsui, Yakult Swallows’ ace Keiji Takahashi, or Chunichi Dragons’ veteran Yudai Ohno are expected to make the final cut.
Many star pitchers are yet to be named. Most notably, the status of Kodai Senga, who recently signed with the New York Mets, is still unknown. He was the only Japanese player to make the All-World team at the 2017 WBC. Additionally, veterans like Masahiro Tanaka (Golden Eagles) and young studs like Hiroto Takahashi (Dragons), Yuki Udagawa (Buffaloes), or Soichiro Yamazaki (Buffaloes), will be hoping to get an opportunity.
One big name that certainly will not be joining the staff, however, is flamethrower Kaima Taira. The 23-year-old has posted an incredible 1.66 career ERA across 203 games but elected to skip the WBC to focus on converting to a starter for the Seibu Lions next season. Even without Taira, though, Japan’s pitching will undoubtedly be one of its biggest strengths.
This already looks like the strongest roster the Samurai have ever assembled. Stay tuned for the official announcement of the full roster later this month.