It's that time of year again when we dream of solutions to the critical problems of the recently concluded season. We need Greinke. We need relievers. We don't need Wells. We've all got ideas for how to fix this team. In my unofficial capacity as HH Japan Guy, I'm here to present you with a few you might not have considered. Since pitching is where we need the most help, that's what I'm going to focus on.
Admittedly, I haven't been able to watch too much of our friends in Nippon Professional Baseball this year because real life and Mike Trout have distracted me. Also, Yu Darvish has arrived in an enemy uniform and there isn't anyone quite as awesome that has risen to take his place in Japan yet. But, there are some that are close or hold the potential to match him one day.
Before we get started, I think it's a good idea to look at the performance of this year's influx of NPB talent. In total there were four starters who made their way to the US this year. Two ended up having pretty solid years and look primed for productive careers. One was practically benched for some reason to start the year, but ended up doing okay toward the end. The fourth had to have surgery at the end of the spring and missed the whole year. Overall, I'd give this class a B/B+ Here's a breakdown for each of them.
Yu Darvish: 191 IP, 221 Ks, 2.48 K/BB, 116 ERA+, 4.0 WAR
He can definitely improve his control, and seems to be susceptible to the big inning at times, but for all the hype and pressure he was under, I think he had a very good year. If it wasn't for Mike Trout, he'd probably be the favorite for AL ROY, with a slight edge over Yoenis Cespedes.
Wei-Yin Chen: 192.2 IP, 154 Ks, 2.7 K/BB, 105 ERA+, 2.4 WAR
Chen is actually Taiwanese, but spent his entire career in Japan before making the jump to MLB. He was a low-cost gamble by the Orioles, who ended up being an integral part of their unexpectedly successful year. As a lefty he can be dominant at times, as he showed in the playoffs, and should have a solid career ahead of him as a mid-rotation starter. This is the type of thing the Angels need to find.
Hisashi Iwakuma: 125.1 IP, 101 Ks, 2.35 K/BB, 118 ERA+, 1.9 WAR
Iwakuma was one of the top starters in Japan prior to coming over along with Darvish, so why the Mariners used him so little at first, I'm not sure. He wound up being pretty solid once he became a part of the rotation and obliterated the Angels every time we faced him. At only $1.5 million in base salary, he was a steal. He's now a free agent, and I think the Angels should talk to him about a possible 1- or 2-year deal with a small raise to pitch at the back end of our rotation.
Tsuyoshi Wada: Did not play due to injury.
Wada was another top pitcher from Japan that the Orioles took a cheap gamble on. Like his teammate Chen, Wada is a lefty, but is older and doesn't throw as hard. He fits the stereotype of the "crafty lefty" so it would have been interesting to see how that translated here. The O's signed him for two years, so he'll get another shot in 2013, assuming his elbow is healthy.
Targets for 2013
The Angels' biggest need going into next year is pitching, especially in the bullpen and at the back of the rotation. As I mentioned above, I think we should talk to Iwakuma. I also think Kuroda might be worth a look, but he is getting up there in age. Below are two more guys currently playing in Japan that I think we should target, and won't require posting fees if they choose to sign with us.
Kyuji Fujikawa: 644.2 IP, 1.80 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 856 Ks, 192 BB, 196 Saves (Career stats)
Fujikawa is 32 and has been the most dominant closer in Japan for most of the last decade. He's been vocal about wanting to come to the US, but the Hanshin Tigers have denied all his requests to date. Now that he's a free agent, he can make the jump on his own. Fangraphs, oddly enough, wrote an article on his dominance and the chances he has of replicating that here in the United States (shameless plug: the article mentions a comment by me in the beginning).
He has a good forkball and curveball, but his best pitch by far is his 4-seam fastball, which is known for its rising or "jumping" action as hitters have described it. This isn't some gyroball media hype either. His fastball has been examined by scientists in Japan, who found that it spins faster than the typical fastball and is tilted only 5 degrees relative to its axis compared to the typical 30 degrees. Long story short, this gives the ball more lift, causing it to "rise" in comparison to the path of a typical fastball. You can see some of this action and his other pitches here. Some scouts have expressed concern that MLB hitters will learn to adjust to the height of his fastball, but others have expressed confidence that he will do well in a late-inning role.
He has been scouted by numerous teams, and according to Yakyubaka, is expected to fly to the US sometime soon to speak with his agents about a plan of action. The Angels are among the teams supposedly interested in him, which is good news if you ask me. An anonymous source said they expect him to get something like 2 years and $10 million, which is about as high as I'd go for any reliever, especially one making the jump. But, this is an area where I trust Dipoto's judgement. I wouldn't be surprised if we were able to get him for a total value of around $7-8 million over 2 years.
We need relievers who can come in and shut things down, instead of give games away like in 2012. Fujikawa has done that for years in the toughest environment outside MLB, and still has a few years of usefulness left in him. If we add him to the mix of Frieri, Downs, newly-resurgent Jepsen, and Walden, we will likely see a major improvement in our bullpen. The track record of NPB relievers making the switch has been much better than the starters who have done so, and given that he has continued his performance for two years now with NPB's new MLB-style ball, I think he's a safe bet to make.
Shohei Otani: Otani is a high school player and one of the top draft prospects in Japan. I actually hadn't heard much about him until the past few days, when he started popping up on NPB Tracker and MLBTR. He has similar height and build to Darvish and at age 18 has thrown as fast as 99 MPH during a game. His command is very raw, but he has been dominant at times, and that speed is obviously a huge asset. He got a lot of action this summer in the Koshien, which is sort of like March Madness over there, but for high school baseball. There's about 15 minutes of video of him where you can see the power and raw, unpolished talent.
MLBTR via Patrick Newman at NPB Tracker says that Otani will announce Monday whether he will enter the NPB draft or sign with an MLB team as an amateur free agent. It's here that he could wind up being one of the steals of this decade. He wouldn't require a posting fee, and since he hasn't played any professional ball, he would be subject to the international signing limitations under the new CBA. The limit is around $3 million this year from what I know, so the Angels could get a much-needed power starting pitcher back into their farm system at a relatively low price after depleting their stock in that category over the last couple of years. This would be a very smart move for Dipoto, assuming Otani decides to skip the NPB draft.
The articles I've seen about him haven't mentioned the Angels, but a few comments I saw said representatives from the Angels met with him earlier in the year, so Dipoto may be thinking the same thing I am. Either way, we should know by Monday if we have a shot at him.
There are a few other rising pitchers in NPB, like Masahiro Tanaka and Yuki Saito to keep an eye on, but they are still a few years away from free agency or the possibility of their teams posting them.
In conclusion, it's been a good year for Japanese pitchers making the transition, and it looks like some of that could continue under the Halo in 2013. Here's hoping JeDi is warming up his mind tricks.
UPDATE: Otani has elected to skip the NPB draft in favor of signing an amateur FA deal with an MLB club. We'll see who he ends up with.