JAPAN WILL BE WELL REPRESENTED IN MLB IN 2014
Ten Japanese players, led by future Hall-of-Fame outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, relief pitcher Koji Uehara, and starting pitcher Yu Darvish, have major league contracts for the upcoming season.
In addition to the star players mentioned above, starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka will begin his MLB career this year with the New York Yankees after a remarkable seven-year run in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).
The following list includes brief information on all ten of the Japanese players expected to play prominent roles with big-league clubs in 2014:
Ichiro Suzuki: A remarkably talented player for over two decades between Japan and the U.S., Ichiro is now 40 years old and nearing the end of a career that will land him a spot in Cooperstown five years after playing his last game. In 13 MLB seasons, Ichiro is a .319 hitter with 2742 hits and 472 stolen bases. He was selected to ten straight All-Star games to start his big-league career, as well as earning 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards in his first decade in the U.S. In 2014, Ichiro will play his second full season with the Yankees after batting .262 with 136 hits for the Bronx Bombers in 2013.
Hiroki Kuroda: Even though he turned 39 last week, Kuroda is being counted on once again to be a workhorse in the Yankees’ starting rotation. A veteran of six MLB seasons after a standout 11 years in NPB, Kuroda was 11-13 last season with a 3.31 ERA. In 32 starts, he hurled 201 and 1/3 innings, allowing 191 hits, while striking out 150 batters and posting a 1.16 WHIP.
Koji Uehara: Uehara dazzled out of the bullpen for the Boston Red Sox in their World Series title run last year, saving 21 games and earning the ALCS MVP award. In 74 and 1/3 innings, he surrendered a paltry 33 hits, while fanning 101 batters and permitting only nine walks. Perhaps the most impressive statistic of his five MLB seasons thus far is his 8.74 strikeout/walk ratio.
Junichi Tazawa: The 27-year-old Tazawa established himself as a mainstay in Boston’s bullpen in 2013 after a number of his teammates failed to perform up to expectations in set-up roles. Last year, he had a 5-4 record in 71 appearances. In 68 and 1/3 innings, he gave up 70 hits and recorded 72 strikeouts. His WHIP was a solid 1.20.
Norichika Aoki: Aoki was dealt this offseason from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Kansas City Royals. In his two seasons with the Brew Crew, Aoki batted leadoff and generally played right field, roles he will also be expected to fill in his first season in the AL. In 2013, Aoki suited up for 155 games, batting .286 with a .355 OBP and 20 steals in 32 attempts.
Daisuke Matsuzaka: The 33-year-old Matsuzaka will look to revive his flagging career in 2014 with another shot as a starting pitcher with the New York Mets. After spending most of last season in the minor leagues in the Cleveland Indians’ organization, Matsuzaka made seven starts for the Mets, posting a 3-3 record. In seven big-league campaigns, Matsuzaka is 53-40 overall with a 4.52 ERA, 642 strikeouts, and a 1.40 WHIP.
Yu Darvish: After a highly-acclaimed career in NPB with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish made his MLB debut in 2012 with the Texas Rangers and quickly established himself as one of the top starting pitchers in the game. With the Rangers, Darvish has put together a 29-18 record so far with a 3.34 ERA in 61 starts. In 401 innings, the power-pitching righty has given up just 301 hits, while striking out 498 batters. Darvish was selected for the All-Star Game in his first two seasons, and also finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting last year.
Hisashi Iwakuma: Iwakuma, who will be 33 in the season’s first month, excelled as a starting pitcher in his first two seasons with the struggling Seattle Mariners. His overall record stands at 23-11 with a fine 2.84 ERA. Iwakuma was picked for the All-Star Game last year and finished in third place in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Kyuji Fujikawa: Signed by the Chicago Cubs prior to last season to be a late-inning reliever, Fujikawa had a disappointing, injury-plagued year before finally undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. In just 12 games, Fujikawa tossed 12 innings with 14 strikeouts and a pair of saves. He will probably not be ready to pitch for the Cubs in 2014 until the middle of the season.
Masahiro Tanaka: Tanaka will make his MLB debut with the Yankees this spring after a stellar career with NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles garnered him a seven-year/$155 million deal with the world’s most famous baseball team. The right-hander has a good fastball and a devastating split-fingered pitch, using them to go an unprecedented 24-0 last year, while recording an amazing 1.27 ERA in 28 starts and 212 innings pitched. He also won a pair of postseason games and picked up a save as his team won the Japan Series title for the first time in franchise history.
Other Japanese players plying their trade in the U.S. but probably bound for the minor leagues to start the season include shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima of the Oakland A’s, shortstop Munenori Kawasaki of the Toronto Blue Jays, outfielder Kensuke Tanaka (Rangers), pitcher Yoshinori Tateyama (Yankees), and Shunsuke Watanabe (Red Sox).
All statistics and other player information can be found at: http://www.baseball-reference.com/
Patrick Hattman lived in Japan from 1998-2008 and continues to closely follow Nippon Professional Baseball and its best players.