In the World Baseball Classic, the fans in the United States got to see a ton of talent from different countries that they don’t normally get to see. There were a lot of people who maybe looked at a team like Japan, and although they recognized that Japan would be good, failed to recognize just how good some of the talent outside MLB was and is. There were many non-MLB players that were highlighted as players to watch, but for the players who are soon to come over stateside, how have they fared in 2023 in their respective leagues? That’s the question that will be answered, as we look through four international stars who are set to make the move stateside in the near future:
Yoshinobu Yamamoto might be the best pitcher outside of MLB, and he has the numbers and accolades to back it up. At just 24 years old, Yamamoto has had a number of impressive accomplishments throughout his career so far. Yamamoto made his NPB debut just days after his 19th birthday, and he has been nothing but impressive since. The accolades are outstanding, as in 2021 Yamamoto won NPB’s Sawamura Award (NPB’s Cy Young), the Pacific League MVP, and he won the Triple Crown, leading the league in strikeouts, wins, and ERA. Then, just to add, he went and did the same thing in 2022, once again claiming the Triple Crown, Sawamura Award, and Pacific League MVP.
For Yamamoto to win two Sawamura Awards at his age is spectacular. It is an award that has been won by pitchers who did eventually move to MLB, such as Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Koji Uehara, Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenta Maeda and Masahiro Tanaka. The pedigree Yamamoto would bring with him to MLB is high, and he is seemingly set to arrive stateside for the 2024 MLB season, as the Orix Buffaloes are set to post him to MLB teams after the 2023 season. The only concerns for Yamamoto are his size, since he is just 5 foot 10, and weighs only 175 pounds, plus the fact that he has never been in a rotation that has pitchers throw on just four days rest. However, he has thrown 190 innings in each of the last two seasons, so he can eat up innings.
For Yamamoto the 2023 season has been a continuation of the previous seasons for him. In eight starts so far this season Yamamoto has a 1.82 ERA, while racking up ten strikeouts per nine innings, as well as only allowing two free passes per nine as well. As great as that sounds, a 1.82 ERA is still a worse ERA than what Yamamoto has had the previous two seasons, with an ERA at 1.39 and 1.68 in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Yamamoto is more than ready for the MLB, and many believe he will get a bigger deal this offseason than what Kodai Senga received from the Mets, due to Yamamoto’s age, as well as there not being any concerns about him moving to the pen, whereas some people had bullpen concerns with Senga. Regardless, a team is going to give Yamamoto a lot of money, but just like his former Orix Buffaloes teammate Masataka Yoshida, what may look like an overpay to some could be one of the best deals of the entire offseason.
As the son of former KBO MVP Lee Jong-beom, Lee Jung-hoo has seemingly always been a star in the making. From a young age, he was recognized for his talent and devotion to the game of baseball. Yet, just because one seems to be a star in the making, it doesn’t always mean they turn out to be one. But, when it comes to the “Grandson of the Wind” (a nickname passed along to him as a nod to his father who was the “Son of the Wind”), Korea may finally have a MLB star on their hands. With it being confirmed Lee will be posted after the 2023 season, he will be able to sign with any team ahead of the 2024 MLB season.
Lee, the reigning KBO MVP, had his best season to date last year. In 2022, he hit .349/.421/.575/.996 with 23 home runs alongside his 36 doubles and 10 triples. Also of note was Lee’s wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), which sat at 175, meaning he was 75% better than the average hitter in the KBO. So far in 2023, Lee has taken a bit of a step back. His OPS is down to .773 through 52 games, but there is more to look at than just the OPS drop. Lee’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) has significantly dropped, and his ISO (isolated power) has taken a nosedive as well. However, Lee is making more hard contact than he ever has this year, having a hard hit rate of 42% so far in 2023, which is a 10% increase from 2022. His soft contact rate has dropped 5%, all the way to under 8%. Plus, Lee is still a good defensive center fielder, who can run well. He hasn’t been a massive stolen base threat the last few years, but he definitely is considered a good runner.
Another thing to add about Lee is that he made his KBO debut at just 18 years old, going straight from high school to the KBO, skipping over the KBO Futures League. Lee then went on to become the first rookie to appear in every single game straight out of high school, and snatched up the KBO Rookie Of The Year award. Talking about awards, Lee has one five consecutive KBO Golden Gloves. Plus, in 2019 Lee won a series MVP award, making him and his father, Lee Jong-beom, the first father-son duo to both win a postseason MVP award. With Lee being just 24 years old, he will be a very interesting piece for MLB teams to consider. Lee could very well find himself as the best outfielder on the market in the 2023-24 offseason in the eyes of some teams, which could make Lee arguably the most interesting free agent there will be this upcoming offseason.
At just 21 years old, Roki Sasaki might be the best pitcher in the entire NPB right now. Sasaki became famous for the legendary two game stretch he had last season where he threw a perfect game, and then in his next start went 8 innings of perfect baseball until he was taken out of the game. That is something that is unheard of at any level of baseball and for Sasaki to do that when he was 20 against professionals in the second best league in the world is impressive, to say the least. What’s wild about Sasaki is the amount of guys he strikes out, and with that the ability to still limit walks. Last season Sasaki struck out 35% of the hitters faced, which is elite, but nothing like what he’s doing in 2023. This season, Sasaki is striking out a whopping 43% of the hitters he faces while only walking 6% of the hitters he has faced.
The biggest question surrounding Sasaki as it pertains to MLB is when he would be able to make the jump to the MLB. If Sasaki were to wait until he would no longer be considered an international amateur free agent (IAFA) by MLB, Sasaki wouldn’t be able to play stateside until the 2027 season. However, if he decides to do what Shohei Ohtani did, and make the jump early while still being considered an IAFA, Sasaki could play in the MLB as early as the 2024 season, although he would be set to lose millions of dollars, plus the Chiba Lotte Marines would still have to be willing to post Sasaki to MLB. The most reasonable solutions for Sasaki are to wait until 2027 to come to the states, or to take the jump to MLB early and arrive in 2025 after his age 22 season, like Ohtani. Essentially, we don’t know when Sasaki would come over, but when he does, he will be a player every team would want.
What separates Sasaki apart from others, especially in Japan, is his power fastball. In the WBC, we saw him reach 102 mph, and he has a nasty splitter to go along with it, plus a slider. Sasaki has all the tools to be a dominant force in Japan until he comes over, and this year he’s proving that, as in seven starts he has a 1.23 ERA. Plus, Sasaki has already outdueled Yamamoto once this year, in a game where the Chiba Lotte Marines defeated the Orix Buffaloes 2-0. The future is extremely bright for Sasaki, and whenever he comes over to MLB he has the talent to be a star for a long time.
Yuki Matsui is a very interesting player for a team to pick up this upcoming offseason. Matsui is a 27 year old left handed relief pitcher, and what is really enticing for MLB teams is that after the 2023 season, Matsui will become a true international free agent, meaning he won’t need to be posted, and he can come over to the MLB and sign with a team. Plus, without the posting system, he won’t have just the 30 day posting period to sign with a team, he will have the entire offseason. Matsui would be one of the best relief options on the market for a team that believes in his ability to make the transition to MLB.
Matsui has a fastball that sits at 92-94 and can reach 96, but the two pitches that make him really good are his splitter and slider, which have been described as dominant, and a curveball that he doesn’t use as much. It is a pitch mix that could work in MLB, and it definitely works in NPB, Matsui could potentially be in the midst of one of his best seasons in Japan right now. He has a career 2.43 ERA, but when looking at 2021 and 2022, he had a 0.63 ERA and a 1.92 ERA. So far this year Matsui, has a 0.53 ERA in 17 appearances, raising his strikeout rate up to 41% in 2023, and in those 17 appearances (17 innings), Matsui has only walked three batters.
The only real concern for Matsui is being able to adjust to the different ball used by MLB, as the NPB ball is different from the MLB ball. It was noted that during the WBC Matsui struggled to adjust with the WBC ball, which is much closer to the ball the MLB uses. However, it could potentially be chalked up to the fact that he was still focused on being ready for the NPB season, meaning he didn’t switch to practicing with MLB balls in the lead up to the WBC. Also, this is not an uncommon concern for NPB pitchers, but the concerns normally die down a bit after their first spring training.
That wraps up a look at some of the biggest international stars we could see in MLB very soon. Sasaki is obviously a bit further away, but who would turn down the opportunity to get to discuss such a talented player, plus the rumors that he could come over early are interesting. For Yamamoto, Lee, and Matsui, they all should be set to make the move over to Major League Baseball for the 2024 season. These players give MLB teams a chance to add a very good player to their team, and sometimes the contract they sign the player to can become a very good contract for the team if the player lives up to the hype. And as always, if there is a player you believed I missed, make sure to tweet to me @derrik_maguire and @BleacherBrawl and let us know who you are excited to see make the move over to MLB.