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The First Japanese Player in Reds History

Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan is one of the premier non-MLB leagues in the world. And yet the Reds have never employed a Japanese-born player. Might that change this coming season?

Japan All-Star Series: Japan v. MLB All-Stars

One of my best friends is a nerdlinger of some regard who teaches writing at the University of Dayton. He founded a collective called the Dayton Writers Movement a few years ago. They produce audio dramas like the old-time radio shows that were popular before we became fully civilized and started watching television. They release them as podcasts, of course, because they are now fully civilized like most of the rest of us. This whole intro is mostly a way for me to shamelessly plug the work of my good friend, but I’ll wing it back around to baseball, I promise.

As I said, this fella is a total nerdlinger. He’s strictly abstemious – he has never as much as smoked a cigarette or drank a drop of alcohol, much less tried some of the better and more enriching illicit drugs. Tom Waits once said that reality is for people who can’t face drugs and this friend of mine is real as fuck, man.

At this point in his life (dude’s approaching 40) it isn’t as much a point of conviction or idealism as it is a somewhat perverse exercise in self-denial. He’s more “well, I’ve made it this long without it” than anything else. He sees it kinda like board games or crocheting: some folks get their kicks from it, but it just ain’t his scene.

The Reds have been similarly abstemious with regard to Japanese players (I told you I’d wing it around!). The Cincinnati ball club is the only major league organization to never employee a Japanese baseball player in its long, long history. Which seems totally weird and obviously intentional on its face, a matter of conviction or idealism. But it’s the kind of thing that just never happened, for a number of totally unweird and unintentional reasons. Its not that the Reds have ever refused to do so (though I honestly wonder about the Marge Schott years), its just that they never have. I presume it’s more a function of cost than anything else: the Reds have always been notoriously stingy on the free agent market in general, and when you add in the extra cost of the posting system arranged between NPB and MLB that most Japanese players are required to pass through, its as good an explanation as any.

But with the Reds in a position to spend more money than ever on free agent acquisitions and a cohort of Japanese players looking to move stateside who present interesting fits on the Reds roster, 2020 is looking increasingly like the year the Reds might pop this cherry. So lets take a look at some of the prominent NPB players coming to MLB this winter and see what we can see.

Of course, all the boilerplate caveats apply here. What kind of contract will they command? Can their skills translate from NPB to MLB? And all that crap.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo – LF/1B – Yokohama BayStars

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo has been one of the biggest boppin’ big boppers in NPB for a number of years. He is a five-time All Star and he led the league in home runs and RBIs in his best season in 2016. His career slash is a legit .285/.382/.525 and he has hit 205 home runs in just over 4000 PAs. He hits left-handed but throws right-handed and he’ll be 28 next week. He is about 6’0” and 210 lbs and he most certainly qualifies as a galoot.

Of course, that means he has his limitations. He is not swift by any stretch of the imagination and some scouts think he is best suited to 1B or DH, though he could probably handle LF in MLB just fine. For the BayStars he played a fair amount of 3B as a younger man, but he’s been mostly in LF for the last few years. Though his range is limited in the outfield and some think his hands are a bit hammy for 1B, he does show a legitimate arm and could conceivably cover RF just fine under the right circumstances.

Yoshi was officially posted by the BayStars on Friday so negotiations are happening right this minute. I’ve seen a few estimates project that he could command a guarantee between $25 and $35 million.

Ryosuke Kikuchi – 2B – Hiroshima Carp

In a number of ways, Ryosuke Kikuchi is the exact opposite of Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. He is the Juan Pierre to Yoshi’s Adam Dunn. Ryosuke is a five-time Gold Glove winner at 2B and a legitimate stolen base threat, averaging about 15 nabbed bags a season. He has maintained a career slash of .271/.315/.391 and he has been consistently healthy his entire career (NPB plays 143 games a season and he has played at least 138 in every full season). He’ll be 30 in March.

It is hard to overstate the quality of his glove. He is not just one of the best defensive middle infielders in Japan, it’s pretty clear he is elite by any standard. He isn’t likely to command the kind of salary that Yoshi will, and it has been speculated that if he were to only receive minor-league contract offers he will choose to stay with Hiroshima.

He acquitted himself quite well in the Premier 12 Tournament that just ended with Japan defeating Korea for the title. Ryosuke had eight hits in 24 ABs, slashing a clean .333/.417/.360 in the tournament. He is very similar to Jose Iglesias, who just spent 2019 as the Reds’ shortstop.

Shun Yamaguchi – P – Yomiuri Giants

Shun had the best season of his career in 2019, throwing 181 innings with a slick 2.78 ERA. He had a WHIP of just 1.17 with a K/BB over 3.0. His career numbers (14 seasons now in NPB split between Yokohama and Yomiyuri) aren’t far off that peak, either. The Giants announced this morning that he has officially been posted.

Shun’s best pitch is a heavy split-finger fastball. His fastball averages just about 90 MPH, which is decidedly below average for MLB. He has been a successful starter for a number of years now, but he began his career as a reliever. He saved 64 games between the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Yamaguchi did not fare as well as Ryosuke in the Premier 12. He started three games in the tournament (including the championship game against Korea), tossing nine innings to the tune of a 6.00 ERA. He struck out ten but gave up 11 hits, including two dingers.

Shogo Akiyama – CF – Seibu Lions (FA)

Shogo is a free agent, unlike the previous three players mentioned. That means he does not have to navigate the posting system and he is free to sign with whatever team he chooses. He is a five-time NPB All Star and a two-time Gold Glove winner in center field. In nine seasons with the Seibu Lions, he has slashed .301/.376/.454 in about 5300 PAs.

He is a restaurant-quality defender in center field, a stunningly consistent iron horse (he hasn’t missed a game since 2014), and a legitimate on-base machine (he has avoided outs at a .400 clip over the last five seasons). He set the NPB record for most hits in a single season back in 2015 with 216.

I think of the four of these, Shogo is the one I am most interested in. He would potentially solve a few significant issues for the Reds, as he could provide above-average on-base skills to the top of the lineup while also anchoring the outfield defense. He is 31 years old so he likely will not require a significant long-term deal (my guess is that two or three years will be enough). He does strike out a bit, but his walk and contact rates are more than enough to counterbalance that. And of course, he would allow the Reds to improve their defense at two positions, as they could move Nick Senzel back to second base where he is Gold Glove caliber. He is not an Ichiro or Yu Darvish-level talent (few are, of course), but I would not be surprised at all if he puts together a few years of 2-4 WAR production.