Due to much tighter labor controls by the NPB's corporate owners, the NPB free agent class of 2009 is a mere seven players. There are more possible DH free agent candidates in the MLB free agent class than the entire NPB class.
Indeed, of these NPB free agents, several of them will sign with other teams in Japan, such as Norihiro Nakamura, who flopped in his debut with the Dodgers and went back to Japan to play for the Orix Buffalos. He will now try his luck with another NPB team.
On top of the shallow class are two famed NPB pitchers: Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara. Which one is a better pick for your MLB team? It's true both have excellent history-making careers in Japan. Kawakami brought the Chunichi Dragons their first title since 1954, and Uehara brought Japan its first victory in the World Baseball Classic while playing for the Yomiuri Giants.
American-based baseball fans got to see Uehara up close in 2006 when he fanned a tournament-best 16 batters. Your humble scribe, who saw Uehara pitch at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, was impressed with his control.
Unfortunately, Uehara was injured the next year and missed part of the 2007 Season. Since that time his pitching has been sporadic, though he has been successful on the international stage with dominating performances and saves recorded both in the Asia Games and the Beijing Olympics.
The question is, will he be consistently productive with an MLB team or suffer from the additional strains of a longer season with substantially more travel?
Conversely, Kawakami has been a reliable workhorse for the past few seasons. Last season he ended the longest championship drought in the NPB by winning the Dragons a victory in the Japan Series and the Konami Cup.
Neither Uehara nor Kawakami is likely to represent Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Kawakami is a proven winner and seems a better fit for a lot of teams. The Royals, who lost out in Free Agency bidding on Hiroki Kuroda last year, will likely be interested in signing him. The Braves or joining Daisuke Matsuzaka on the Red Sox are other options. The ALCS Champion Tampa Bay Rays are reportedly also interested.
The most intriguing option would send Kawakami to the Royals. With Trey Hillman, a former NPB Manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters (who was defeated by Kawakami's Dragons in the Japan Series), the Royals seem like a good fit.
Allegedly, though, Kuroda took less money to go to the Dodgers. After having spent his entire career with the cellar-dwelling Hiroshima Carp, he was looking for a chance to win a championship.
Will Kawakami feel the same impulse? Will he take less money to go to a proven winner? Only time will tell.
“They will always be the Tampa Bay 'Devil' Rays to me!”—Joe Nixon is a semi-pro sportswriter and a Chunichi Dragons Fan since as a child he watched the film Mr. Baseball.