As the 2023 Major League Baseball season is set to begin, questions abound regarding this season’s crop of Japanese import players.
Will Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels produce another superlative season, full of broken records, and where might he play next season? Will San Diego’s Yu Darvish help the star-studded Padres reach the World Series for the first time since 1998? Will the Chicago Cubs’ Seiya Suzuki begin to pay dividends on the five-year contract he received a year ago? Will pitchers Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins and Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays rebound from injury and ineffectiveness, respectively? And how will the three talented newcomers – outfielder Masataka Yoshida of the Boston Red Sox and pitchers Kodai Senga of the New York Mets and Shintaro Fujinami of the Oakland Athletics – adjust to the MLB environment?
We’ll start to get some answers when play begins on March 30. Meanwhile, let’s go a little deeper into each of the eight import players (three more than at season’s end in 2022).
A terrific 2022 season earned Ohtani a one-year contract for this season worth $30 million, enabling him and the team to avoid arbitration. It is the largest one-year contract ever given to an arbitration-eligible player. Ohtani remains set to become a free agent after 2023, and that has been cause for much speculation about his future – whether he could be traded in-season and which team he will sign with – and for how much – after the season.
“I really like the team,” Ohtani said of the Angels in September 2021 when asked about his future. “I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team. But more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. So I’ll leave it at that.”
The Angels have not had a winning season since 2015, and last were in the playoffs in 2014.
Speculation has been that he could get the sport’s first $500 million contract, and his brilliant 2022 performance as a two-way player, relative youth (Ohtani will turn 29 around the All-Star break), star-appeal, and an MVP performance in the high-stakes World Baseball Classic all support his cause for being baseball’s highest-paid player…by a lot.
Ohtani was among the league leaders in hitting and pitching the entire 2022 season and became the first player in the World Series era (since 1903) to qualify for the leaderboards as both a hitter and pitcher in the same season. Ohtani led his club in innings pitched, pitching starts, games played, and plate appearances as a batter.
He finished with a 15-9 win/loss record, 2.33 ERA, and 219 strikeouts in 166 innings. As a designated hitter, Ohtani finished with a slash line of .273/.356/.519, along with 34 homers, 30 doubles, 11 stolen bases, and 95 RBIs.
He had a number of firsts and other highlights in 2022, such as:
- Versus Houston on April 10, hitting a ground-rule double that ranked as the hardest hit by a lefthanded batter since Statcast began tracking this in 2015
- Striking out 10 or more batters in six consecutive games, one game shy of Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan’s franchise record
- Winning ESPY awards for Best Male Athlete and Best MLB Player
- Joining Babe Ruth as the only players in American League and National League history to win at least 10 games on the mound and hit at least 10 home runs in the same season
- Becoming the first player in AL/NL history to get at least 10 wins as a pitcher and hit at least 30 home runs in the same season
- Winning the Angels’ Most Valuable Player award and the Nick Adenhart award as the team’s best pitcher
Ohtani further burnished his resume this spring by leading Japan to the World Baseball Classic championship and earning tournament Most Valuable Player honors. As a hitter, he averaged .435 with a 1.345 OPS. On the mound, he was 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA and got the save in the title game against the United States, striking out Angels’ teammate Mike Trout to end it. In an earlier game against Italy, he threw the fastest pitch of his career, 102 miles per hour.
Darvish is preparing for his third season with San Diego, which hopes to make a deeper run in the playoffs than it did in 2022 when it reached the National League Championship Series. And he’ll do it on a new contract – a six-year extension worth $108 million that will run through the 2028 season. He had been slated to reach free agency following the 2023 season.
The contract’s length is a gamble by the Padres, as Darvish will turn 37 in August, but the righthander is coming off a strong 2022 performance. He was a huge factor as San Diego made the playoffs for the first time in a full-length season since 2006 and posted its first winning record in a full regular season since 2010. He had a very solid regular season and was good in the playoffs, with two victories and solid performances in two losses.
Consistent throughout the year, Darvish finished very strong, posting a 5-1 mark over 39 September innings with a 1.85 ERA and a microscopic 0.79 WHIP. He finished the regular season at 16-8 with a 3.10 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP which was the lowest of a major-league career that began in 2012. Also, his 26 quality starts tied Houston’s Framber Valdez for the most in MLB.
Like Ohtani, Darvish spent much of the spring with Japan’s WBC team, posting a 1-0 mark in three appearances.
In his first MLB season after signing a five-year pact right after the 2022 lockout ended, Suzuki went through a transitional period after nine seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), with its expected ups and downs. Unfortunately, his 2023 spring training regimen was impacted by a moderate left oblique strain in late February that kept him out of action. He began taking normal batting practice in late March and is also running and doing agility work, but he is expected to begin the season on the Injured List.
In 2022, he had a hot start, followed by a lull in April and May. He missed all of June while on the Injured List after spraining his right ring finger, rebounded somewhat in July, then regressed in August. His September was abbreviated because his wife gave birth to a child, and he returned to Japan to be with her, but he did bat .321 that month with a .926 OPS. In fact, the new father averaged 315/.392/.514 from August 21 to the season’s end, and his 155 wRC+ during that span ranked eighth in the NL (min. 120 plate appearances).
Suzuki finished 2022 with a .262 batting mark, .335 on-base percentage, .433 slugging percentage, and 14 home runs. He struck out in 27.7 percent of his at-bats, compared to a 17.9 rate during his NPB career, and his 2022 on-base percentage was well below his NPB career mark of .402.
His goal during off-season workouts was to add strength. He was listed at 182 pounds in the Cubs’ media guide a year ago, but he said he was 20 pounds heavier when he reported to camp in February and had been showing off his power in early batting practice sessions.
“The strength and the size is noticeable,” Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly said. “The swing hasn’t changed much, which is a good thing. He has one of the most mechanically sound swings in this game. And with the added strength and bulk, it didn’t compromise that at all. So we’re excited about it.”
Kikuchi is a big question mark. He has talent and quality stuff – a mid-90s fastball from the left side and an ability to mix speeds well – but he was inconsistent in his three seasons with Seattle and struggled in the first year of a three-year contract with Toronto. He was removed from the starting rotation in mid-August and didn’t fare a whole lot better when operating out of the bullpen. In 12 relief appearances, Kikuchi had a 4.91 earned-run average, allowing nine walks and 10 earned runs in 18.1 innings. The good news is that he did not give up a run in his last four outings while walking just two batters and striking out 10 over 6.1 innings.
For the season, Kikuchi posted a 6-7 win/loss record with a 5.19 earned-run mark and 1.50 WHIP. He walked 58 batters and hit nine in 100.2 innings. He produced an fWAR of -0.7. In the last 25 MLB seasons, there have been 3424 seasons of 100 or more innings produced by individual pitchers. Just 56 of them — or 1.7 percent — resulted in an fWAR of -0.5 or worse.
Reportedly, Kikuchi adjusted his arm slot during the off-season in order to gain more consistent command of his fastball, and that may be making a difference. In seven spring outings, Kikuchi struck out 31 batters in 20.2 innings with an 0.87 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. The 31-year-old’s contract will pay him $20 million through the 2024 season, so he’ll certainly get an opportunity to bounce back before the Blue Jays would simply eat the contract.
Maeda underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2021 and missed the entire 2022 season. There had been some hope that he might return in late 2022 as a reliever, but he and the Twins decided it was best not to rush the comeback. If he does return to the same level of effectiveness as before, it would give the Twins a big boost.
In his first season with Minnesota, Maeda was outstanding, posting a 6-1 record in the truncated 2020 season with a 2.70 earned-run average and a major league-leading 0.75 WHIP. In 2021, though, he was just 6-5 with a 4.66 ERA before having the surgery.
In five appearances this spring, he posted a 4.91 earned-run average and 1.64 WHIP. He had command issues, with 10 walks in 14.2 innings.
Boston gave Yoshida a five-year, $90 million contract during the off-season – not to mention paying a $15.4 million posting fee – and time will tell if Yoshida, who will turn 30 in July, produces at a major-league level.
His offensive resume with Japan’s Orix Buffaloes was outstanding – a slash line of .326/.421/.539 and good power for a 5-8, 175-pounder – and he starred for Japan in WBC, batting .409 with two home runs, 13 RBIs, and a 1.258 OPS
But remember that, with a few notable exceptions such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, Japanese position players haven’t stood out in MLB. Like the Cubs’ Suzuki, Yoshida has had a good eye at the plate, striking out just 300 times in 2,703 at-bats, and had more walks (427) than strikeouts. But Suzuki went through an adjustment period last season, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that of Yoshida too. Also, Yoshida is said to have issues defensively. In limited spring training action, he batted .231 in 13 at-bats with a home run and two RBIs.
MLB.com reported that Steamer projects Yoshida to bat .298, the second-best batting average projection behind only Luis Arraez, with a .388 projected on-base percentage that’s second only to Juan Soto. His projected OPS, .867, is top-10 among all MLB hitters. The 140 wRC+ Yoshida is projected for is the same as former MVPs Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt.
Furthermore, Japanese baseball author Robert Whiting wrote in a blog that “[Yoshida] has been described by Americans who have played in Japan with him and against him as an ‘on-base machine’ and a ‘pure hitter.’ Some have even compared him to Phillies superstar Bryce Harper.”
However, Bleacher Report wrote that ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel spoke to “ten sources” who all “thought the Red Sox overpaid by a hefty margin.” One executive went as far as to say, “We thought he was worth less than half of what they paid.”
So – take your pick, and then wait and see what transpires.
The 30-year-old righthander carries a terrific report card from his 11 seasons with Japan’s Fukuoka Softbank Hawks – an 87-44 record, .664 winning percentage, and a 2.59 earned-run average. He struck out 1,252 batters in 1,089 innings, had three times as many strikeouts as walks, and posted a WHIP of 1.15. His fastball ranges in the mid-90s, and his forkball – called a “ghost fork” – is said to be devastating, with an outstanding downward motion. All of that earned him a five-year, $75 million contract with the Mets.
Interestingly, Senga did not play in Japan’s well-known high school tournaments and was merely a developmental league draft pick at the start of his pro career.
“Very few of those players ultimately make it to the NPB level, and very few become stars,” Mets General Manager Billy Eppler said in his opening remarks at Senga’s news conference. “So he’s constantly working to improve. He fought his way to become a star and a championship-level pitcher.”
“[The Mets] got a winner,” said San Diego Padres pitcher Nick Martinez, who played with and against Senga during his four seasons in Japan.
The question, as with all imports, is how quickly and how well Senga will adjust to the MLB game – the different hitting approach, the colder weather in the U.S. northern cities in the season’s early months, a harder pitching mound, a larger and less-tacky baseball, and five-man pitching rotations (six is the norm in Japan).
Senga’s spring training was limited because of tendonitis in his right ring finger, most likely caused by the new American ball. In three spring training outings, he was 1-2 with a 4.00 ERA, striking out ten in nine innings. He is scheduled to be No. 4 in the Mets’ rotation, with his first start scheduled for April 2 against Miami, and will have a 90-pitch limit in his debut.
Maybe you’ve heard this before – let’s wait and see.
Fujinami, who will turn 29 in April, signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract with Oakland in January. He played with NPB’s Hanshin Tigers for 10 seasons, posting a 3.41 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 189 games. He averaged slightly better than a strikeout per inning but also had a career walk rate of 4.2 per nine innings. He also played for Japan in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Fujinami features a fastball that has reached 100 mph, a splitter ranging in the low 90s, and a sharp slider. He was a top prospect in the same draft class as Ohtani, went straight from high school to Hanshin, and did well in his first three seasons. He then started having trouble with command, and his effectiveness waned. However, he improved his walk rate to a career-best 7.6% in 2022, while still averaging a strikeout per inning.
The A’s are said to initially be envisioning Fujinami as a starter. In his career with Hanshin, the 6-6, 180-pound righthander made 87 starts and 102 relief appearances. This spring, he appeared in five games, all as a starter, and was 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and 20 strikeouts in 18.2 innings. To manage his workload, Oakland will deploy a modified five-man rotation in which Fujinami starts every Saturday. Get ready for “Shintaro Saturdays”!
Following are the whereabouts of former imports who played in MLB in 2022 . . . Infielder/designated hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo, last with Pittsburgh, signed a minor-league contract with Texas Rangers on Jan. 15, 2023 . . . After being released by Cincinnati and then signing a minor-league deal with San Diego, outfielder Shogo Akiyama signed a three-year contract with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp on June 27, 2022 . . . Reliever Hirokazu Sawamura, who played with Boston the last two seasons, signed with the Chiba Lotte Marines on Jan. 28, 2023. He had played for the Marines in 2020 after playing with the Yomiuri Giants from 2011 – 2020 . . . Starter Kohei Arihara, formerly with the Rangers, signed with the Softbank Hawks on Jan. 6, 2023. He played with the Nippon-Ham Fighters from 2015 – 2020.