The Top MLB Prospects of Asia

This is not only one of the final installments of Prospect Week 2018, but also Sung Min Kim’s first piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

While I’ve been an ardent follower of Major League Baseball since middle school, my interest in the sport increased considerably when I began following the Asian leagues closely. There are three popular leagues in East Asia: Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) based in Japan, Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) based in Korea, and the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) based in Taiwan. I was “born into” the KBO because of my Korean nationality. I slowly learned more about the NPB, though, as I grew up and Korean stars like Tae-Kyun Kim, Samson Lee, Seung-Yeop Lee, etc., headed there to play.

At around the time I was becoming more well acquainted with the particulars of the aforementioned leagues, major-league teams also began showing greater interest in Asian talent. Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s move to Boston was particularly significant to raising the profile of Asian baseball in the States. Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka made their own splashes by bringing posting fees to their respective NPB teams and earning big contracts right out of Japan. Hyun-Jin Ryu’s move to the Dodgers was a landmark event, too, as it represented the first time ever that a Korean-born KBO player landed a big multi-year deal with a major-league club. More recently, of course, the entire Shohei Ohtani storyline — which ultimately landed the two-way star in Anaheim — has unfolded in very public fashion. There are more I’d mention but I’ll spare you for now.

It’s clear that more attention has shifted to the Asian leagues’ top players. There are clear major-league talents on the east side of the globe, and some of them — mostly the star-level types in each respective league — have decided to forego the comfort of their domestic leagues to challenge themselves in a whole new culture.

Some of those experiments have worked out, some have not. It is not easy to predict how a particular player will do in majors because there are so many factors to weigh. Skill is one thing. There are also cultural adjustments, too, and subtle differences to which players must adjust on the field. For instance, early in his MLB career, Hideki Matsui had difficulty dealing with the two-seam-heavy approach utilized by some pitchers. It is difficult to become adequate in all these aspects right away — especially for those players who are expected to start. Nonetheless, many Asian players dream of playing in the majors.

So, here, I present a list — accompanied by scouting reports — of six prospects playing in Asia. For this list, I considered only those players who (a) would be available to leave Asia within the next three years (or, before the start of the 2021 season) and who (b) have expressed interest in coming to the MLB or have, at least, not publicly refuted such a thing. Some players, like top NPB shortstop Hayato Sakamoto of the Yomiuri Giants (dubbed as the “Derek Jeter of Japan”), prefer to stay in Japan. Sakamoto has been ML scouts’ favorite for a while, but it’s possible that he just wants to stay and remain a star of Japan’s most popular team.

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Saitama Seibu Lions

Kikuchi is all but guaranteed to appear in the States by 2019. Not only does he features an arsenal that would easily make him a starter in the majors, but also he has strongly expressed desire to come over to the US. Back in 2009, as a top high-school pitching prospect for Hanamashi Higashi (the same high school attended by Shohei Ohtani attended), Kikuchi attracted much MLB interest. For instance, the Rangers recruited Derek Holland to try to persuade Kikuchi to sign with Texas. However, Kikuchi decided to stay in Japan and was drafted in first round by the Seibu Lions, for whom he has pitched ever since.

While Kikuchi has been above league average up to and including 2016, he truly broke out in 2017, recording a 1.97 ERA while striking out career-high 217 in 187.2 inning. Moreover, he limited the walks (49) by allowing a 2.3 BB/9, which is a big upgrade over 3.5 career rate. Prior to that, he’s put up a solid ERA but was not really efficient — putting up relatively high walk rates and frequently laboring through five innings with 120 or so pitches. In 2017, he killed two birds with one stone by improving his command and becoming efficient enough to eat more innings.

Kikuchi has been known for his electric arm since his amateur days. He hit 158 kmph (98.2 mph), which is an NPB record velocity from a left-handed pitcher. He typically sits in the low-to-mid 90s and can ramp it when he needs. His main secondary pitch is a slider that has a big 10-5 break. He features an arm action that hides the ball till after the footstrike, making it tough for hitters to pick up what is coming.

Here’s a fastball at 156 kmph (96.9 mph) on the inside corner:

And a slider to Carlos Peguero for a swinging strikeout:

It is always a bit tricky to find MLB comparisons for Asian league players. The closest I can think for Kikuchi is Patrick Corbin, another lefty starting pitcher who features a heavy fastball-slider combo. However, Kikuchi does throw a curveball around 10% of the time, whilst Corbin does not really feature it. Another good comparison could be early-career Clayton Kershaw.

With power stuff and improved command, Kikuchi should be popular among ML clubs when he hits the market. The only major question mark on him is the injury history. He had not reached the qualified amount of innings pitched in a season until 2016. (He also missed two months that season due to an injury to his right side.) He also was shut down during the 2010 and 2013 seasons after experiencing shoulder pains. Whoever bids big on him is also rolling the dice for his good health in the future. If he is able to stay healthy and translate his newfound efficiency to the majors, then he’ll be a formidable rotation weapon.

Seong-Beom Na, OF, NC Dinos

Like Kikuchi, Na was also scouted heavily by major-league teams as an amateur. While he is a top outfielder in the league right now, he was actually a left-handed pitching prospect for Yonsei University back in 2012, sitting in the low-90s with the heater. It was reported that the Yankees and Dodgers were among the teams looking at Na. However, an Achilles injury reduced his value, and Na opted to start his professional career in Korea.

Na is one of the top athletes — not just baseball player — of the KBO. Standing at right around 6-foot even, Na is not quite tall but has a big, muscle-bound build that helps him punish the ball when making contact. While another KBO outfielder, Hyun-Soo Kim, was more known for finesse, making contact, and getting on base, Na is known for hitting’em hard and square. A scout told me that Na has a “plus” raw power that should play in any major-league ballpark. He has simple and repeatable hitting mechanics, which also helps.

This homer versus KT Wiz went fast and far:

And here’s the swing replay by KBS Sports’ 4D Cam:

Na is coming off a solid 2017 in which he reached the 1.000 OPS mark for the first time. He slashed .347/.415/.584 and hit 24 home runs and 42 doubles in 125 games. The hit and power tools are there. The 8.6% walk rate is not terrible, but considering that he also struck out a good amount (20.7%), you wonder if he has enough plate discipline and pitch-recognition skills to survive at the major-league level. At the same time, some of it might be attributed to Na’s aggressive approach.

Here are some data courtesy of the Korean sabermetric website Statiz:

Swing Percentage, 2017
Name All pitches First Pitch
Seong-Beom Na 53.0% 44.9%
League Average 46.0% 19.2%
Difference 7.0% 25.7%
SOURCE: Statiz

Boy, he sure loves attacking the first pitch — and for good reason. When making contact on the first pitch, he recorded a .373 AVG and 639 SLG in 2017. If he does go to the MLB, Na may need to refine his approach against higher-level pitchers. But for now, he’s done pretty well.

Na’s defense, meanwhile, is flawed. He has an established bat, but he does not show good instinct in the outfield. An international scout has told me that Na doesn’t have the quick step to start tracking fly balls on contact. Defense is the biggest detractor to Na’s overall value. His strong arm is a saving grace, but overall, he projects to be a below-average outfielder.

Na is eligible to be posted by the Dinos after the 2019 season. The earliest he could head overseas would be his age-30 season, which is still in the midst of his physical prime, so teams would not be too shy about proposing a multi-year deal. While he has a potential to hit, there are other facets of his game that are not as complete, which separates him from premium MLB prospects. If an ML team takes a shot at Na, it would be because they are sold on his hit and power tools. Na himself has publicly spoken about his interest in coming to the ML. If he keeps star-level production in the KBO, you can expect his name to swirl around during the 2019-2020 offseason.

Takahiro Norimoto, RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles

Also like Kikuchi, Norimoto is a Japanese power arm who can rack up strikeouts. Norimoto edged Kikuchi by five strikeouts to take the Pacific League strikeout title (222) in 2017. Just like Kikuchi, Norimoto also showed some impressive peripherals, including a 10.8 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, and 4.6 K/BB.

After winning the Pacific League Rookie of the Year, Norimoto took over as the staff ace of the Golden Eagles as Masahiro Tanaka left for the Yankees. As 991 strikeouts and 236 walks in 948.0 career IP would indicate, Norimoto overpowered hitters and limited walks throughout his NPB career. In 2017, from April 19 to June 8, Norimoto set the NPB record for double-digit strikeout totals in eight consecutive starts, moving past Hideo Nomo’s mark of seven. In the past three seasons, Norimoto has posted remarkably consistent numbers:

Takahiro Norimoto, 2015-17
Year Innings Strikeouts Walks
2015 194.2 215 48
2016 195.0 216 50
2017 185.2 222 48
Average 191 218 49

Standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing 180 pounds, Norimoto is not the biggest guy on the mound. What Norimoto possesses, however, is power stuff. According to a research reported by Sponichi, he also possesses an above-average spin rate on his heater. Norimoto’s fastball has recorded as much 2,500-plus RPM, while averaging around 2,300 — both of which figures are better than the ML average rate of 2,200. It is not the finest comparison to put the maximum spin rate and average spin rate together, but you see that Norimoto is capable of throwing heaters that can “rise” and deceive some eyes. Couple that with his velocity — he’s hit as high as 158 kmph (98.2 mph) — and you have above-average MLB heat.

Here is one at 155 kmph (96.3 mph) on pitch No. 125 of a start against Yomiuri.

Norimoto also features slider and splitter in his arsenal. Both are considered plus pitches, and he uses both to get hitters out. Here’s an example of each.

Despite lacking a prototypical hard thrower’s size, Norimoto has a delivery that uses every inch of his body. He generates good amount of momentum towards landing and features a long and high three-quarter arm action that looks high-effort to many. Fair or not, teams are a bit more careful about undersized right-handed pitchers due to durability concerns and fastball plane.

If Norimoto comes over to the MLB, he could be a nice No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Back in 2014, he faced the MLB All-Stars during their visit to Japan and no-hit a lineup featuring Evan Longoria, Justin Morneau, Salvador Perez, etc. for five innings. Five innings is a very, very small sample size, but for that day, Norimoto showed that he can definitely hang with the major leaguers.

In December 2016, Norimoto commented during an Adidas event that he would like to go to the majors someday, so that’s something. Norimoto is eligible to be posted after the 2019 season at the expiration of his contract, and he has reportedly asked Rakuten to post him to ML teams at that point. In 2020, Norimoto would be entering his age-29 season, so hypothetically, we could see the righty in the majors during his prime.

Po-Jung Wang, OF, Lamigo Monkeys

The Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) is not covered as thoroughly in the US anywhere near to the degree of the NPB or KBO. In recent years, many of the circuit’s top amateur players have signed directly with the MLB teams instead of going to the CPBL because of league-wide instability that has resulted from a series of game-fixing scandals. As a result of fiasco, the CPBL has reduced to four clubs total and lost out on many amateur talents to MLB — but it is still checked and scouted. Recently, after the 2015 season, the San Diego Padres were interested in the top infielder Chih-Sheng Lin; however, due to the posting fee and Lin’s age (he was then 33 years old), it didn’t happen.

However, there is a talent who took the CPBL by storms by putting up video-game numbers: Po-Jung Wang. (His name is pronounced closer to “Bo-Rong Wang,” but is spelled using the “Wade-Giles system,” which is one of the four ways to romanize Chinese characters.) Wang hit an eye-popping .407/.491/.700 in 115 games in 2017, winning the quadruple crown (average, hit, home run, RBI) — and, of course, the league MVP.

Actually, here are his CPBL career statistics:

Po-Jung Wang, 2015-17
2015 29 122 9 .324 .377 .640
2016* 116 550 29 .414 .476 .689
2017^ 115 517 31 .407 .491 .700
*Won ROY and 1st MVP.
^Won 2nd MVP.

Sure, it is true that the CPBL is quite offensively inclined. There are many reasons for that — a number of talented positional players, a lack of talented pitchers, a shrinking strike zone, and juiced balls — and it makes you wonder how Wang would adjust if he were to head to the NPB or MLB. However, there’s no doubt that the 24-year-old is talented. Here is Wang taking the aforementioned Takahiro Norimoto deep over the center-field wall during an international match:

Former Royals and White Sox reliever Andy Sisco, who has pitched around the globe (Mexico, Korea, Taiwan, Dominican Republic), is quoted at the CPBL English site as saying that Wang “definitely projects as a major league player.” Continues Sisco: “He hits for power, he hits to all fields, he can hit a good fastball. He’s not a guy who can be overpowered.” Wang also garnered some attention from the American media in 2017 by unleashing one of the most awesome and flamboyant bat flips humanity has ever seen.

An international scout told me he sees potential in Wang to succeed in the NPB/MLB but that he has to fix some flaws, saying, “He has holes in his swing that make him vulnerable to inside pitches in the next level.” This evaluator added that Wang’s glove isn’t anything special, meaning “he’s pretty much stuck in the corner-outfield slots.”

Due to a recent rule change in the CPBL, players are eligible to explore going international after three years of service time and with their club’s permission (including posting fee). Wang now has two seasons under his belt, so hypothetically, he could head elsewhere after the 2018 season. According to a person with knowledge of the situation, the Athletics, Diamondbacks, Pirates, and Reds have had scouts to see Wang, though it seems likely that Wang will go to Japan first before challenging himself to go to the MLB. There is plenty of NPB interest in him, meanwhile. Wang himself has said that, ultimately, he’d like to go to the MLB but would not mind stopping by the NPB before it happens.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, OF, Yokohama DeNA Baystars

Tsutsugo has a very defined characteristic: power.

After hitting 69 home runs playing for Yokohama High, Tsutsugo was drafted by the Yokohama DeNA Baystars in the first round of 2009. Hampered by series of injuries (wrist ligament, left ankle bone contusion, etc.), he did not blossom for the first few professional seasons. The Baystars fans had their prayers answered in 2014, when he broke out, hitting .300/.373/.529 with 22 home runs in 114 games. He took the performance to the next level in 2016, slashing .322/.430/.680 with 44 home runs as a 24-year-old. He suffered some regression in 2017 (.284/.396/.513, 28 HR in 139 games), but because of his youth and tools, Tsutsugo is not going to be ignored by anyone in the league anytime soon.

You can know next to nothing about Tsutsugo and realize he’s a power hitter by looking at his swing. He has a Bryce Harper-like timing mechanism — an open stance, a trigger to shift the weight back, the hands held high before launch, and then boom.

Here’s a testament to the big raw power that Tsutsugo possesses:

The main concern with Tsutsugo is that some believe he might end up being a one-dimensional strikeout-or-home-run player in the MLB. If his hit tool can play along with his raw power, then you may have a worthwhile everyday outfielder in the majors. It also helps that he has displayed high OBP approaches, which counts a lot! However, the regression he experienced in 2017 places some doubt on his hitting ability at the next level. There have been many instances where a highly touted amateur with raw power did not translate their overall potential as smoothly as front offices had hoped. (The recent example of Yasmany Tomas comes to mind.)

Thanks to his youth, Tsutsugo has time to work on his weaknesses and up his value. Hypothetically, he can put up a 2016-like monster season or two and be pursued as the biggest Japanese hitting prospect in years. Tsutsugo can wait until after the 2021 season to be an international free agent or demand to be posted after any season. Right now, Tsutsugo is far from a complete package, but the market is always on demand for a power-hitting outfielder. Teams will keep an eye on him.

Jeong Choi, 3B, SK Wyverns

When I asked Eric Thames last year which KBO players he thought could be a major-league regular, he first mentioned Choi, referring him as “the home-run guy.” Choi does indeed hit a lot of home runs. He led the KBO in the category in 2017 by swatting 46 out of the park. Choi also led the league in slugging percentage (.684) and OPS (1.111) and ranked fourth in OBP (.427). Simply said, Choi has been a complete hitter in the Korean league.

Back in 2014, Choi received some attention from the American media when Jon Heyman dubbed him the “Korean David Wright,” describing him as a “five-tool player” and “excellent athlete.” The then-27-year-old Choi was definitely a more all-around player than he is now. He has bulked up considerably and, of course, aged, which subtracts from his fielding ability. He still shows good instincts at the hot corner, but it’s hard to say he’s one of the top defensive third basemen of the league.

As noted, Choi’s bat is the main calling card. He started out his career as a line-drive hitter with 20-home-run potential. However, he added some uppercut to his swing under tutelage of former Wyverns manager and Chicago White Sox bullpen coach Man-Soo Lee, resulting in more fly balls over the fence. While his strikeouts have increased over the years, Choi still has hit for average, taken his walks, and hit for elite power. Choi also has a dubious distinction for an unusually high amount of hit-by-pitches. In 2017, at only 30 years old, he set the Asian league records for career HBPs by surpassing 197. In comparison, Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was hit by pitches 285 times (second-most ever) in his 20-year career. Choi has been hit 203 times in a 13-year career, which is a slightly higher rate and even more remarkable considering that KBO plays fewer games than the MLB per season.

While he may have a shot to become a major leaguer, it is unclear if Choi will test the ML markets after 2018. He has never spoken much about such a possibility. Many feel that Choi could have gone after 2014 after finishing his age-27 season; instead, though, he opted to re-sign with the SK Wyverns for four more years. You can bet on him gauging the interest levels from ML scouts during 2018 and going from there, but, again, his intent isn’t well known. Choi will be entering his age-32 season in 2019, so there isn’t much of development time (besides the adjustment period for which teams would give him a leash) for him were he to head to the majors.

Sung-Min Kim writes for River Ave. Blues, and has written for, The Washington Post, Baseball America and VICE Sports. Besides baseball writing, he is also passionate about photojournalism and radio broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter @sung_minkim.

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6 years ago

This is awesome. I’m sure I’ll have more questions once I really sit and digest this.

One question: Are you going to cover Tetsudo Yamada at all in your time here? Because I’d love to get some details on him.

(I learned about him here first:

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

A lot of people say that Yamada’s down year was due to not being fully recovered from a back injury.