Available Pitchers from the Asian Leagues

Hey everyone, I thought it'd be a good idea to collect a list of the available pitchers from the NPB and KBO for us to dream about the Cardinals signing (for the record, I don't necessarily believe that they will actually sign any of them, but dreams ya know), since I can't seem to find a good list anywhere, and I know some Japanese so that helps with gathering resources. If any new pitchers are posted after I write this, I will edit it them in. After the list of pitchers I have some writing on how the NPB-MLB and KBO-MLB posting systems work, if that interests you at all.

The NPB Pitchers Posted So Far

Yoshinobu Yamamoto(山本 由伸)- RHP, Orix Buffaloes, age 25, posting period: 11/20-1/4

Despite being undersized, only 5'10" tall and 177 lbs, and a fourth round pick, Yamamoto has been arguably the greatest pitcher in the history of Japanese baseball, at least on a rate basis. His last three (2021-2023) seasons are as dominant as any pitcher you'll ever see. He has won the MVP award in the Pacific League (their American League) all three years, as well as the Sawamura award (their Cy Young, except there's only one winner for the entire NPB) all three years, and the Pitching Triple Crown all three years, meaning he has been the Wins leader, ERA champion, and Strikeout champion of the Pacific League all of the past three years, something no pitcher has done before in NPB history. He has also thrown two no-hitters in this span (being the only pitcher in NPB history to throw no-hitters in consecutive seasons; Yankees GM Brian Cashman was actually in attendance for his no-hitter in 2023). Furthermore, his team won the Japan Series (the NPB World Series) in 2022, and made it to the Japan Series in 2023. This year he posted a sub-1 ERA in his final 16 starts, including a streak of 45 scoreless innings from August to mid-September. His career ERA is 1.82, his career FIP is 2.37 (I couldn't find season to season FIP stats), and his career WHIP is 0.94. He is also one of the rare pitchers who gets statistically better the third time through the order, and he has never had a major injury of any kind.

Here are some of his stats for all three years in order (2021, 2022, 2023):

GS*: 26, 26, 23

ERA: 1.39, 1.68, 1.21

CG: 6, 4, 2

W-L: 18-5, 15-5, 16-6

IP: 193.2, 193, 164

K: 206, 205, 169

K/BB: 5.15, 4.88, 6.04

WHIP: 0.85, 0.93, 0.88

*Note that the NPB season is only 143 games, and typically NPB teams use 6-man rotations and they have one off day per week so, typically, so a full season's workload is only about 24 starts.

He has a fantastic fastball, splitter, and curveball, while also mixing in a 2-seamer, cutter, and sweeper, all three of which he uses primarily against righties (a significantly higher proportion of NPB hitters are left-handed compared to MLB). His fastball sits at 95, his splitter is comparable to Kodai Senga's legendary ghost fork, and the curve is one of those pitches I could watch on loop for hours. There's been a lot of ink spilled by better analysts than me about his pitches, so I'll leave it at that. If it wasn't obvious enough, I think he profiles as an ace in the MLB, and there's a good chance he wins ROTY and the Cy Young this year in my opinion.

Shota Imanaga(今永 昇太)- LHP, Yokohama DeNA BayStars, age 30, posting period: 11/27-1/11

Imanaga, the starter for Team Japan's gold medal game against the US, is also a bit undersized at 5'10" and 190 lbs. His calling card is his great stuff, striking out 174 in only 148 innings this year, giving him a 29.2% K rate, which was significantly better than any other pitcher in the Central League (their National League), and 10% above the NPB league average (NPB pitchers generally employ a much more pitch-to-contact approach). He has a great fastball that he throws well over half the time with over 20 inches of IVB (Eno Sarris gave the pitch a 149 stuff+ rating during the WBC), and backs that up mainly with a changeup and slider, both of which generate whiffs effectively. He also has very good control, and his stuff is so nasty that he gets hitters to chase outside the zone at a 35% rate, which altogether means that he is exceedingly good at limiting walks. Also, his fastball velocity has increased every year he has played and currently sits in the low to mid 90s. His stats for 2023 are as follows:

GS: 22

ERA: 2.80

CG: 2

W-L: 7-4

IP: 148

K: 174

K/BB: 7.25

WHIP: 1.05

The con with him though is that he is a total fly ball pitcher, and as a result gives up a lot of homers, which inflated his ERA all the way to... 2.80 (well, not exactly concerning but still). His 8% HR/FB rate in 2023 sounds low but is actually quite high by NPB standards, which helped him still have a superb 2.38 xFIP for last season, so make of that what you will. It seems like a reasonable projection for him would be a #2 starter at his absolute ceiling and more probably a #3 or #4 starter on a contender. I've heard that the Cardinals were scouting him in June but so were about a dozen other teams.

Naoyuki Uwasawa(上沢 直之)- RHP, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, age 29, posting period: 11/27-1/11

The Fighters are the team that posted Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani, but Uwasawa is not quite the same level of hype-inspiring as they were.

Uwasawa is not what one would call a power pitcher. He mixes seven different pitches and changes speeds in order to induce soft contact and strike hitters out, and his fastball only sits around 90 mph. This year he had 124 K's in 170 IP, which is actually a slightly above average K rate by NPB standards but is obviously rather below average by MLB standards. His 2023 stats are:

GS: 24

ERA: 2.96

CG: 2

W-L: 9-9

IP: 170

K: 124

K/BB: 3.02

WHIP: 1.14

In essence, he seems like a somewhat worse Miles Mikolas and is probably the kind of pitcher the Cardinals have too many of already. If he signs with a contending team, he'd probably be their #5 starter or a long reliever, but in reality these sorts of NPB pitchers usually end up going to eat innings on mediocre or bad teams (see Kohei Arihara and Shintaro Fujinami before he got moved to the bullpen and traded). Best case scenario for him is he adapts well to the MLB environment and turns into enough of an innings eater to get another contract.

KBO Pitchers Posted So Far

Woosuk Go (고우석) - RHP, LG Twins, age 25

(I'll write this up soon, I promise)

International Free Agents

Yuki Matsui(松井 裕樹)- LHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles, age 28

Despite being only 28, Matsui has already hit international free agency as he has been a full-time closer for the Eagles since his age 19 season. He hasn't started a game in the NPB since his age 18 season, so he's pretty clearly slated to be a reliever in the MLB, probably the youngest star reliever to ever come over from Japan, in fact. In the 2021-23 seasons, he's averaging 50.2 IP, a 1.66 ERA, and a 36.4% K rate. So it's safe to say he has the strikeout stuff expected of a shutdown closer. He also is good at limiting the quality of contact when hitters do connect, giving up only 8 HR's in the past 3 years and getting soft contact very efficiently. Here are his stats for the 2023 season:

G: 59

ERA: 2.20

SV: 39

IP: 57.1

K: 72

K/BB: 5.54

WHIP: 0.89

Similar to Shota Imanaga, he has a fastball that only sits in the low-mid 90s but has great movement that prevents hitters from barreling it up. The star of the secondary offersings is, in Japanese fashion, a splitter, one that generated an almost 33% whiff rate and a batting average against of just .145 in 2023. He also has a slider, which he primarily uses against lefties, and it appears to be quite valuable, especially considering it's his third pitch. The main caveats regarding Matsui are 1) he pitched quite poorly using the MLB ball in the WBC (the NPB uses a different ball that is slightly smaller and comes pre-tacked) and 2) he apparently has quite a slow tempo on the mound, which could be a concern as he comes to the MLB with the pitch clock. The lazy comp would be a left-handed Gio Gallegos, but with a splitter as the main offering instead of a slider. He will probably be an effective middle or high leverage reliever in the MLB, but he make take a little while to adapt.

The Cardinals have been specifically linked to him on multiple occasions, and of any pitcher on this list I'd say he's the most likely for the Cardinals to sign by a decent margin. His projected contract is 2 years for $16m, which is certainly something in the Cardinals' price range.

The NPB-MLB and KBO-MLB Posting Systems

The posting systems are somewhat controversial systems that exist essentially to protect the NPB (which, if you haven't guessed by now, is the highest professional baseball league in Japan) and the KBO (the same but for South Korea) from the MLB poaching all of their young talent without any compensation.

From the MLB perspective, one of the main advantages of the posting system is that it allows teams to essentially get free agent level talent by spending extra money instead of draft picks (for QO guys), which is presumably something that most teams would prefer to do.

Players with nine years of service time in the NPB or KBO are considered international free agents, and are free to sign with MLB teams as they please like any other free agent (i.e. they are not subject to the posting system). This is how the Yankees got Hideki Matsui.

If a player in the NPB or KBO has fewer than nine years of service time, but wants to sign a contract with an MLB team, then they are subject to the posting system. The current rules of both systems were first put into practice in the 2018-19 offseason.

I've found some conflicting reports, but it appears that players from both leagues can currently only be posted from November 1 to December 5. First, the player must ask their NPB/KBO team to be posted, and their team can say yes or no to this. If they say no, then the player has to keep playing for his NPB/KBO team. If they say yes, then the team sends a notice to the MLB Commisioner's Office notifying the league that the player is being posted. All 30 MLB teams then have the right to negotiate with the player for 30 days from that point. For NPB players, this window was extended to 45 days as of last offseason, but I believe for the KBO it's still 30. If the player fails to reach a contract with any MLB team within that period, then they must go back to their NPB/KBO team and cannot be posted again until the following year. In the KBO, teams cannot post more than one player at a time and cannot allow more than one player to leave via posting per offseason; it's unclear whether this applies to the NPB as well, but in practice it is exceedingly unlikely that a situation will ever arise where a team would want to or even be able to surpass these limits anyway.

So, one question you should be asking yourself is "why the hell would a team ever say yes to a posting request?" Well, they (occassionally) do because, if a posted player signs a contract with an MLB team, the MLB team has to pay a release fee to the player's Asian team that is based on the value of the contract. This is typically most appealing when a player is in their 7th or 8th year of service time, meaning the club would soon lose the player for nothing to international free agency.

For Minor League contracts, the release fee is equal to 25% of the signing bonus, and, if the contract contains Major League terms, a supplemental fee if the player makes the Major League roster.

For Major League contracts, the release fee is equal to 20% of the first $25m of guaranteed money in the contract, 17.5% of the next $25m, and 15% of any money after that, including any bonuses, escalators, or options (if the options are exercised). So, Masataka Yoshida's 5 year, $90m contract netted the Orix Buffaloes a $15.375m fee. Keep in mind, the NPB is league where many of the teams are not profitable, the average salary is just over $300,000, and the highest paid player makes about $7.5m per year (which is Masahiro Tanaka of Yankees fame by the way). So, that much money in fees can be a huge boon to the team that posts the player. The KBO is an even smaller league, where the highest paid player makes only about $1.5m per year, so this applies even more to them.

A huge caveat regarding the posting system is that, if the player is under 25 years old or hasn't played for at least six years in their respective league, then the player is subject to international bonus pool restrictions.

Shohei Ohtani met neither of these requirements when he came to the Angels in 2017, but was so desperate to come to the MLB that he did it anyway, meaning that the Angels got the most talented player on earth for a minor league contract plus a signing bonus of a little over $2m. Why Ohtani's team said yes to this posting in the first place is an interesting story, so forgive me for the long tangent here.

Ohtani, who was the clear #1 prospect in Japan, made it clear coming out of high school that he did not want to be drafted by an NPB team and wanted to sign with an MLB organization as an international free agent, like a player out of the Dominican or Venezuela would. However, one team, the Fighters, took a chance and drafted him anyway. In exchange for letting them sign him, Ohtani made the Fighters agree to post him whenever he wanted to be posted, and he made them agree to let him try to be both a pitcher and a hitter, which no other team was willing to do. It worked out for both sides: Ohtani got to develop at a higher level than he would've in MiLB and got to become a superstar in Japan, and the Fighters got to have Ohtani when he peaked in 2016, winning the awards for best DH and best SP in the Pacific League, as well as Pacific League MVP, en route to winning the Japan Series. After the following season, he made the Fighters honor their arrangement and post him.

The international bonus pool restrictions are also why Munetaka Murakami, probably the best hitter on the planet who's not on an MLB team, signed a 3 year contract with his NPB team last year rather than come to the MLB as soon as he could. When that contract ends after the 2025 season, he will meet both requirements to not come under international bonus pool restrictions, and thus will be able to sign an MLB contract worth around $300m instead of around $3m. Furthermore, Roki Sasaki, possibly the best pitcher in Japan, is only 22 years old, so he will almost certainly not come to the MLB until after the 2027 season for these same reasons.

These complicated requirements mean that players who are posted are almost always star players who are over 25 and have more than 6 but less than 9 years of service time. I hope you can see now why postings are rather rare.

Thanks for reading, and as I said, I plan on updating this article with more info as the offseason continues.