Former MLB/MiLB Players Currently on Japanese Rosters
It’s no secret that I have an interest in Japanese baseball that extends beyond that of many other baseball fans here in the US. Having lived in South East Asia for five years (1995-2000) it seems only natural that there’d be some level of interest. I may have moved back to the US for college after graduating from high school but my family remained in that part of the world for a few more years so naturally I went back to visit on a few occasions. Once, I believe sometime around June 2002, we attempted to take in a game at the fabled Tokyo Dome. Unfortunately none of us had been there before so we were completely lost, couldn’t find our seats, didn’t speak the language well enough to ask someone for help, and didn’t stay long. I wish I knew the date because I’d look up a box score to see what I might have missed out on. Both of my parents would later attend a handful of Chiba Lotte Marines games and even met Bobby Valentine while he was managing the club (and got me an autographed baseball which I find cool because Valentine signed his name in both English and Japanese). I’m in no way an expert on the league, I’ll leave that for folks like Patrick Newman at NPB Tracker, but I’m often fascinated to follow Japanese players coming here to play in the Major Leagues and the players going the other way to play in Japan. Newman, who also contributes at FanGraphs, had a post up earlier this week looking at some of the new names heading across the Pacific this year and I thought I’d expand on a few of the former MLB (and minor league) players currently on Japanese rosters with some thoughts of my own.
Chunichi Dragons: Joel Guzman (IF/OF), Tony Blanco (IF), Felix Carrasco (IF)
Guzman is easily the biggest name of the group, having been named to Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list twice in his career (#5 overall in 2005, #26 overall in 2006). The former shortstop who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2001 as an amateur free agent struggled mightily both at the plate and in the field in the years that followed, contributing to his inclusion in a trade to the Tampa Bay Rays midway through the 2006 season (for Julio Lugo). From there, things didn’t get any better as the Rays eventually moved him around the diamond in the hopes that he’d start to figure things out. Guzman was always considered big for the shortstop position, so a move may have been inevitable at some point, but now he profiles mainly as a corner utility player having spent most of the past few seasons either at third base or right field. His MLB career was brief – 62 total plate appearances between 2006 and 2007 in which he hit .232/.306/.321. He didn’t hit much better in 1,388 plate appearances at AAA since 2006, batting a combined .251/.291/.423. He spent the 2010 season with Baltimore’s AA affiliate before being released in November.
Blanco, an amateur free agent signing of the Boston Red Sox in 2001, similarly had an extremely brief MLB career – 65 total plate appearances in which he hit .177/.215/.274 for the Washington Nationals in 2005. Like Guzman he was twice named to BA’s Top 100 Prospect list (#87 overall in 2001, #93 overall in 2002) but failed to develop into a Major League regular. Blanco is likely best known for being one of the players to be named later involved in the 2002 trade in which the Red Sox acquired Todd Walker from the Cincinnati Reds. He was released by the Colorado Rockies after the 2008 season, at which time he signed originally with the Dragons.
Hanshin Tigers: Randy Messenger (P), Jason Standridge (P), Robert Zarate (P), Craig Brazell (IF), Marcos Vechionacci (IF), Matt Murton (OF), Kenji Johjima (C)
Murton made a big name for himself in 2010 as he capped off his first season in Japan by breaking Ichiro Suzuki’s record for the most hits in a single season. In fact, I took a look at the accomplishment back in October when it happened.
Johjima, of course, is also likely well known for his time with the Seattle Mariners after becoming the first (and thus far only) Japanese catcher to come over to the Major Leagues. From 2006 through 2009 he was a big part of the Mariner lineup and managed a career line of .268/.310/.411 over 1,722 plate appearances during that time. His contract actually ran through the 2010 season, but Johjima wanted to return to Japan after struggling through the 2009 season and essentially retired, forfeiting the approximately $7.6 Million he would have been scheduled to make the next year in order to facilitate such a move.
Vechionacci is an interesting case. Drafted out of high school in 2004 by the New York Yankees, Vechionacci quickly became one of the favorites of many Yankee fans and bloggers, despite never being recognized as one of the top prospects in the organization. His rise through the ranks was fairly steady until injuries derailed his 2008 season, causing him to appear in only 24 games. 2010 was a solid season for the infielder as he batted .283/.350/.421 in 451 plate appearances. However, after the season he reached free agency as a six year minor league veteran. He had never appeared in a game above AA and likely could have found an opportunity stateside, however he signed early this offseason to what is essentially a minor league contract with the Tigers.
Yomiuri Giants: Brian Bannister (P), Seth Greisinger (P), Jonathan Albaladejo (P), Carlos Torres (P), Dicky Gonzalez (P), Rusty Ryal (IF), Alex Ramirez (OF)
Bannister spent the past four seasons pitching full time in the Kansas City Royals starting rotation after coming to the team in a December 2006 trade from the New York Mets. During that time he went 35-49 with a 5.13 ERA in 629.1 innings over 108 starts. Never a big strikeout pitcher, Bannister struggled to develop into a consistently reliable option and after the 2010 season the Royals opted to non-tender him rather than give him a raise via arbitration. Like Vechionacci above, he likely could have found an opportunity somewhere on a minor league contract but instead he chose to try his luck in Japan. His father, Floyd, spent 15 seasons pitching in the Major Leagues from 1977 through 1992. He took a year off during that span, 1990, to play in Japan for the Yakult Swallows.
Ryal spent time over the past two seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks hitting a combined .263/.318/.402 in 290 plate appearances. He played mostly left field and first base but reportedly will head into camp with the Giants as the favorite to win their starting third base job. The versatile infielder has played all over the infield and shown some decent power in the minor leagues since being drafted in 2005.
Yakult Swallows: Josh Whitesell (IF), Wladimir Balentien (OF), Aaron Guiel (OF)
Balentien is your classic 4A player. He’s swung the bat extremely well throughout his minor league career, batting .274/.344/.527 in just under 3,000 plate appearances while averaging 22 HRs a season in the upper minors. However, his MLB career has largely been a disappointment. In 559 plate appearances between the Mariners and Reds he’s managed to hit just .221/.281/.374 and the power production has seemingly disappeared.
Hiroshima Carp: Bryan Bullington (P), Dennis Sarfate (P), Chad Tracy (IF)
Bullington has had one of the most disappointing careers of any #1 overall draft pick in baseball history. After being the first selection in the 2002 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he has managed a career record of 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA in just 81.2 innings with the Pirates, Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays, and Royals.
Tracy is likely one of the most accomplished out of all of the players listed here, having amassed 2,747 total plate appearances over the past seven seasons. During that span he is a career .278/.337/.445 hitter who’s averaged 17 HRs and 70 RBI a season. He’s spent his entire career in the National League, splitting most of his time between third base and first base. Tracy’s decision to go play in Japan likely came as a surprise to many and he seemed to have a good shot at finding playing time despite missing much of 2010 to injury.
Yokohama Bay Stars: Brent Leach (P), Brett Harper (IF)
Softbank Hawks: Brian Falkenborg (P), Anthony Lerew (P), Alex Cabrera (IF)
Seibu Lions: Kazuhisa Ishii (P), Brian Sikorski (P), Alex Graman (P), Dee Brown (OF)
Ishii impressed as a rookie after the left hander signed a free agent deal with the Dodgers prior to the 2002 season, going 14-10 with a 4.27 in his first season in the Majors. He would go on to have two more respectable seasons with the Dodgers before being traded away to the Mets before the 2005 season. After that last year, during which he struggled to a 3-9 record and 5.14 ERA, Ishii opted to return to Japan where his career had begun. He’s seen mixed results since his return, but he’s still pitching and about to enter his third season with the Lions.
Graman was originally drafted by the Yankees in 1999 and worked primarily as a starter as he slowly climbed through the organization’s minor leagues. He first reached AAA in 2002 and seemingly stalled in his development as he’d remain at the level each year through 2005. Between the 2004 and 2005 seasons he would make five appearances in New York (including two starts) but would only pitch a total of 6.1 innings to the tune of an 18.47 ERA. He would be released by the team midway through the 2005 season before signing with the Reds, where he finished the year. Since 2007 he has been pitching in Japan, primarily as a late inning reliever as he’s accumulated 52 saves over three seasons since making the move overseas.
Brown was a 1996 draft pick by the Royals and quickly reached the majors, making his debut just two years later. BA would recognize him on their annual Top 100 Prospects list a total of four times with his highest ranking coming at #11 overall prior to the 2000 season. He would subsequently bounce between the Majors and AAA for the bulk of his career but did manage a total of 874 plate appearances in which he batted .233/.280/.333. His last appearance in the Major Leagues came in 2007 with Oakland.
Chiba Lotte Marines: Hayden Penn (P), Yasuhiko Yabuta (P), Bill Murphy (P), Tadahito Iguchi (IF)
Like many of the others on this list, Penn was once a highly regarded prospect as he came up through the minor leagues with the Baltimore Orioles as he was twice ranked by BA in their Top 100 list (#94 overall in 2005, #81 overall in 2006). However, like the others, he never was able to put things together at the Major League level as he struggled to a career mark of 4-6 with a 9.51 ERA in 82.1 innings pitched with the Orioles, Florida Marlins, and Pirates. After struggling early in the 2010 season, the Pirates released him in order to allow him to move to Japan once the Marines expressed some interest.
Yabuta was at the tail end of a wave of aging Japanese relievers who tried their hand at pitching in the Major Leagues. Signed by the Royals prior to the 2008 season, he would make a total of 43 appearances between 2008-2009 with a 3-4 record and 7.14 ERA in 51.2 innings. After being demoted to the minor leagues in 2009, he would finish the season at AAA before electing free agency at the end of the year in order to return to the Marines, where he had pitched for the 12 seasons prior to coming to the US.
Nippon Ham Fighters: Bobby Keppel (P), Masao Kida (P), Micah Hoffpauir (IF)
Orix Buffaloes: Masahide Kobayashi (P), Alfredo Figaro (P), Chan Ho Park (P), Aarom Baldiris (IF), Michael Hessman (IF), So Taguchi (OF)
Park is notable because the right hander had a nice career in the Majors after signing with the Dodgers prior to the 1994 season out of Korea. Over the next 17 seasons he would go on to become the winningest Asian-born pitcher in MLB history as he won a total of 124 games. After splitting the 2010 season between the Yankees and Pirates bullpens, the soon to be 38 year old decided to continue his career by making the move to Japan, to the surprise of many.
Kobayashi, like Yabuta above, had a long career in Japan before coming to the US on a free agent contract with the Cleveland Indians. Like Yabuta, he struggled mightily to adjust to the MLB hitters and was quickly out of the league altogether, returning to Japan.
Taguchi roamed the outfield for the St. Louis Cardinals from 2002 through 2007 before playing a year each in Philadelphia and Chicago. He won a World Series ring as part of the 2006 Cardinals. His final season, 2009, was spent mostly in the minor leagues before he decided to return to Japan where his career began years earlier with Orix.
Rakuten Eagles: Darrell Rasner (P), Juan Morillo (P), Akinori Iwamura (IF), Randy Ruiz (IF), Kazuo Matsui (IF)
Rasner spent parts of four seasons in the Majors and even made 20 starts for the 2008 Yankees. He was a serviceable MLB pitcher but not dominant. However, after that 2008 season the Yankees sold his rights to Rakuten. In Japan he’s developed into one of the team’s more reliable starters and was in line to take on a big role in 2011 had Hisashi Iwakuma signed a deal with Oakland after the team won the rights to him via the posting system. However, with Iwakuma still in the fold Rasner will not have to lead the staff.