The MLB offseason is always a time of the year I look forward to. However, amid all the moves that are either happening or not happening, the one thing I look forward to most is finding out which NPB players will be making the leap stateside to sign with a MLB team.

Here are some NPB players to watch for this offseason, as well as in the future.


Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP, Orix Buffaloes

ODDS and EVENS] Yoshinobu Yamamoto is Having Another Sensational Season for the Buffaloes | JAPAN Forward

Throughout the entire 2023 season, everyone has been expecting Yoshinobu Yamamoto to make the move to MLB. One of the most highly coveted players on the 2023-2024 free agent market for two years now, the 25-year-old is having the best season of his career thus far. In 22 starts, Yamamoto has posted a 1.26 ERA in 157 innings pitched, including a no-hitter. Another thing Yamamoto has done very well is limit walks, with only 26 issued this season while striking 158 batters. 

Over the course of his NPB career, Yamamoto has put up an impressive 1.83 ERA in 890 innings pitched. Already a two-time winner of the Pacific League MVP, Sawamura Award (NPB version of Cy Young), and Triple Crown, he is potentially on track to complete the trifecta of the MVP, Sawamura Award, and Triple Crown for a third consecutive season. There is no reason Yamamoto won’t eclipse the deal Kodai Senga got from the Mets last offseason, and the argument can be made that bidding should start at the contract Masahiro Tanaka got from the Yankees in the 2013-14 offseason, which was seven years for $155 million. Whichever team signs Yamamoto will have to pay, but it should be worth it based on how Kodai Senga has performed for the Mets.


Shota Imanaga, SP, Yokohama DeNa BayStars

Dynasty Baseball: 2024 FYPD Pitchers on the Rise - FantraxHQ

The pitcher who started in the WBC finals for Samurai Japan was none other than Shota Imanaga, the lefty starter of the BayStars. Imanaga just recently turned 30, and he is set to be the first player ever to be posted to MLB teams by the BayStars. MLB teams view Imanaga as a number two or three starter, and there should be a number of teams interested in him. In 21 starts this season, Imanaga has posted a 2.79 ERA in 142 innings pitched while recording 170 strikeouts to just 23 walks.

Another thing that is nice for MLB scouts evaluating Imanaga is the comparison to BayStars teammate and 2020 NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer. Bauer has a 2.76 ERA in 130 innings pitched in his 19 starts this year. Imanaga is averaging more SO/9 and less BB/9 than Bauer, so statistics show that Imanaga’s talent can indeed translate to MLB. When comparing him to current MLB pitchers, Team USA players at the WBC compared Imanaga to Braves starter Max Fried due to Imanaga’s ability to retire righthanded batters as a lefty. That is high praise from some of the MLB’s best, and Imanaga could fall in a price range close to the deal Kodai Senga got this past offseason of 5 years for $75 million.


Yuki Matsui, RP, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Eagles' Matsui becomes youngest to reach 200 saves - The Japan News

Yuki Matsui is one of the best relievers in all of Japan, and this season he is having one of the best years of his career. The 27-year-old has posted an impressive 1.55 ERA in 52.1 innings over his 54 appearances. However, that isn’t the impressive part for Matsui. He recorded a 4.4 BB/9 ratio in 2021 and a career low 3.3 BB/9 in 2022. His walks have plummeted even more this year to the tune of 2.1 BB/9 with 12 SO/9. The hits have gone up a bit, but whenever I watch him pitch any hits are grounders that get through the infield or balls that aren’t hit extremely hard.

One concern for Matsui would be adjusting to the MLB ball, which is slightly larger and tougher to grip than the NPB ball. Matsui struggled with the WBC ball that is closer to MLB dimensions, but a full offseason working with the MLB ball should help. A reason Matsui could be of interest for MLB teams is the fact that he will be an international free agent, meaning he does not have to go through the posting system and is free to sign with any MLB team at any time. MLB scouts see Matsui as a 7th inning reliever from the jump, with the chance of being better than that. With few reliable lefty relievers in free agency beyond Josh Hader, and even fewer available that are on the right side of 30, teams may be willing to go after Matsui. 


Kona Takahashi, SP, Saitama Seibu Lions

Bóng chày: Kona Takahashi ném Lions qua Hawks dẫn đầu PL - JBAH.INFO.VN

Kona Takahashi is an extremely intriguing option for MLB teams, as prior to 2022 he was a solid starter in Japan that had yet to take that next step. However, in 2022 he made a leap and dropped his ERA from 3.78 in 2021 to 2.20 in 2022. That has continued in 2023, as Takahashi has racked up a 2.21 ERA in 155 innings pitched through 23 starts. Takahashi has primarily been a starter throughout his career in Japan, yet some MLB scouts believe that the bullpen would best fit Takahashi’s profile.

Takahashi does have links to MLB, as his manager for the Lions Kazuo Matsui played in MLB for seven years with the Mets, Rockies, and Astros. Another link is that Takahashi was teammates with Yusei Kikuchi prior to Kikuchi’s move to MLB, and Takahashi is inspired by Kikuchi. Takahashi has said that MLB is “the world’s greatest peak.” He even attended Game 4 of the 2022 World Series in Philadelphia, stating that “the atmosphere was amazing and I thought that I’d love to pitch here [in MLB].” The Lions, however, are not sold on posting Takahashi. They may want to keep him to help turn their team around, as they are currently second-to-last in the Pacific League.


Naoyuki Uwasawa, SP, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters

r/NPB - 'Reborn' pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa off to good start for Fighters

If you don’t know who the Fighters are, an easy way to remember is that they are the team that Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani played for before arriving stateside. Uwasawa isn’t the hyped-up prospect or player that Darvish and Ohtani were, but the 27-year-old could still be of interest to MLB teams. In 23 starts, Uwasawa has a 2.96 ERA in 164 innings. Uwasawa has limited walks to 2.3 BB/9, but due to his reliance on secondary pitches and weak contact he records only 6.5 SO/9. 

It is currently unknown whether or not Uwasawa will be posted, but he has requested to be posted after this season. The Fighters have posted players before, so it wouldn’t be unheard of (Darvish and Ohtani, for example). One thing of note is that Uwasawa came over to the U.S. to train at the Driveline facilities in the 2022-23 offseason to start preparing for a move to MLB. If Uwasawa does indeed get posted, MLB teams will likely see him as a back-end starter or a long reliever due to the low strikeout numbers. Regardless, I’m sure that Uwasawa could find a team to bring him aboard. If Shintaro Fujinami and Hirokazu Sawamura can find MLB teams willing to give them contracts, there’s no reason Uwasawa couldn’t be MLB bound.


Kazuma Okamoto, 1B/3B, Yomiuri Giants

Yakyu Cosmopolitan on X: "My NPB August Team of Month C: Shingo Usami 1B: Yuma Tongu(2) 2B: Shugo Maki(3) 3B: Kazuma Okamoto(3) SS: Hayato Sakamoto(3) OF: Kensuke Kondoh(3) OF: Koji Chikamoto(3) OF:

The current 2023 NPB home run leader is Kazuma Okamoto with 41. Okamoto has hit those 41 homers while putting up a slash line of .288/.381/.604 for a .984 OPS, which would be the highest OPS of the 27-year-old’s career.  If anyone remembers, Okamoto hit a big homerun in the WBC final against U.S. lefty Kyle Freeland. That homer provided Japan with its third run, which turned out to be the game-winning tally in the 3-2 Japanese victory.

With the lack of bats available on the market, Okamoto could’ve garnered some serious interest for teams looking for a bat at corner infield. However, Yomiuri have decided that they do not plan on posting him this offseason. Okamoto could have a chance to be posted for the 2024-25 offseason, but he cannot be an international free agent until the 2026-27 offseason. Thus, there’s a decent chance Yomiuri could hold out until the 2025-26 offseason to post him.


Munetaka Murakami, 1B/3B, Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Baseball: Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami swinging for home run history

Munetaka Murakami was a headline name for the 2023 WBC for Samurai Japan, but he started his 2023 season off slow. The 2021 and 2022 Central League MVP and 2022 Triple Crown winner hasn’t been able to repeat his 2022 season, but that would have been extremely tough anyways considering his extremely slow start. However, Murakami has still hit 31 homers with a .262/.382/.516 slash line and a .898 OPS. That .898 OPS would be his lowest in a season since his age 19 season in 2019. The 23-year-old still has a bright future ahead of him though, and MLB is in that future.

After the 2022 season, Murakami signed a contract extension with the Swallows that locked him in for three more seasons. But the important note in that contract is that after the 2025 season, the Swallows must post him to MLB teams, meaning Murakami will be coming stateside in 2026. Murakami will be just 26 entering the 2026 season, entering his prime just in time to make the move to MLB.


Roki Sasaki, SP, Chiba Lotte Marines

Japanese Pitcher Roki Sasaki Aims for Another Perfect Game - The New York Times

The player who may be the most exciting pitcher in the world is 21-year-old Roki Sasaki, who is already a star. Another member of Japan’s 2023 WBC team, Sasaki only just recently returned from an oblique injury that kept him out for approximately two months. Over the course of the 2023 season, Sasaki has a 1.78 ERA in 91 innings pitched throughout 15 starts. In 2022, Sasaki threw the NPB’s first perfect game since 1994 with his record setting 19-strikeout game that included 13 consecutive K’s. Sasaki then went eight perfect innings in his next start before his manager removed him in order to protect his health. Sasaki set a NPB record during those two games by retiring 52 consecutive batters! For reference, the MLB record is 46 consecutive batters retired (Yusmeiro Petit).

Sasaki is one of the best pitchers in the world at just 21 years old. The only question is when he will come to the big leagues. Unless he leaves early, the earliest Sasaki could be posted to MLB would be after the 2026 season for the 2026-27 offseason. Even if Sasaki had to wait that long, he would be just 25 and would receive a massive contract from a MLB team. Sasaki could come over sooner if he were to leave early, but it would be at a cut price for whoever wins his services, as they’d acquire one of the best pitchers in baseball for pennies on the dollar while the Chiba Lotte Marines would also get the short end of the stick financially. Regardless, if we have to wait until 2027 to see Sasaki in MLB, it is more than worth the wait.


Rintaro Sasaki, 1B, Hanamaki-Higashi High School

The current location of Rintaro Sasaki, a draft hot topic.The team scouts the slugger with the most "129HR" in high school history... – PORTALFIELD News

Why in the world would a high schooler in Japan be included here? Well, there is good reasoning for it. Before Rintaro Sasaki (not related to Roki Sasaki) stepped foot in high school, the Japanese high school home run record for a career sat at 111 homers. Now that Sasaki’s high school career has ended, the home run record sits at 140. Yes, Sasaki hit 140 home runs in four years of high school, obliterating the previous record. And he’s done all that while enduring a high school career that was riddled with injuries. He had thoracic outlet syndrome his freshman year and had surgery on both shoulders entering his sophomore year. He broke a finger in his junior year, and he had to DH early in his senior year due to a heel injury. Regardless, Sasaki is the clear number one prospect for the 2023 NPB Draft. Some have called him the Japanese Prince Fielder, as Sasaki is listed at 6 foot, 250 lbs. So why is he included here?

Recent rumors have suggested that Sasaki could forgo the NPB and the NPB Draft, and could instead decide on going to college stateside. If that happens, he would then be eligible for the MLB Draft after three years of college, making him draft-eligible in 2026. It is also rumored that Sasaki is set to take a visit to Vanderbilt sometime soon to further consider this option. Even if he were to be taken in the NPB Draft, he could negotiate into his contract that he has to be posted at a certain point, similar to what Shohei Ohtani did. If Sasaki went to NPB and waited to be posted, he wouldn’t be able to play in MLB until 2030 at the earliest. It is never a guarantee with any high school-aged prospect, but as of now Sasaki appears to be a star-in-the-making. Also of note, Hanamaki-Higashi High School is the same school Ohtani attended, and Ohtani gives the coach, Sasaki’s father, much of the credit for his development.


If you aren’t paying attention to NPB, you are missing out. A great follow on Twitter for NPB content in English is @yakyucosmo, and I’d also recommend their YouTube channel, which provides great bi-weekly NPB recaps that have provided myself with information on Rintaro Sasaki, as well as info on how the NPB Draft works. 

The NPB and Japan as a whole has a ton of great baseball players, and we all saw it during the World Baseball Classic this past spring. Now is the time where we may see a group of Japanese stars make the jump to MLB, and it will be exciting to see how they do. We’ve seen the likes of Darvish, Ohtani, Tanaka, Kikuchi, Suzuki, Maeda, and many more Japanese players have success after making the jump to MLB. Now it is time for this group of players to be the next ones to make the jump.

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