As Major League Baseball and its players continue to collectively unholster a giant middle finger at all of us, another country has uncorked action on the diamond.
Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan — regarded as the second-biggest league in the world behind MLB — moved forward with its opening day last Friday, marking the third baseball league to return post-pandemic.
First, it was Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League striding in and attempting to quench our hunger for baseball. With only four teams and talent comparable to the California Penal League (especially those horrendous bullpens), it has served less than the equivalent of a small order of fries.
The Korea Baseball Organization, which made its season debut last month with more teams and superior rosters (think a level between Double-A and Triple-A), has done all it can do in an effort to appease us. There are dressed-up sex dolls and stuffed animals in the stands, creating an erotic visual for the piped-in crowd noise. They even have nationally televised games on ESPN — albeit during inconvenient late-night or early-morning hours (though at least this also consists of listening to A-team-quality announcers like Jason Bennetti and Jon Sciambi).
None of this comes close to MLB. But if there’s been one breath of fresh air provided by both — and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) will continue to do in much greater fashion — it’s showcasing another view of major league life: that of former players trying to prove themselves or even simply hang on.
Don’t get me wrong, NPB is an elite-caliber league worth watching with plenty of non-foreign players that will someday arrive in the majors and make an impact. Considering the success attained here by Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish,, Shohei Ohtani and others, it’s worth following the likes of Kazuma Okamoto (Yomiuri Giants), Seiya Suzuki (Hiroshima Toyo Carp), Kohei Arihara (Nippon Ham Fighters), Tomoya Mori (Seibu Lions), Kodai Senga (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) and Yoshinobu Yamamoto (Orix Buffaloes).
Did you Know? Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) teams are identified by the company that owns them, not the city in which they play. So, a name you may be familiar with, the Tokyo Giants, are actually known as the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. Yomiuri is a media titan in Japan. Also, the often misunderstood Nippon Ham Fighters, aren’t the Ham Fighters, but the Fighters owned by a company called Nippon Ham.
With the prospects of a major league campaign shifting back and forth by the day, perhaps this is the closest we’ll get in 2020 to the baseball we’ve come to know and love. At the very least, there are dozens of former major leaguers, some of which you’ll be surprised are even still around. A smorgasbord of “Let’s Remember Some Guys” guys, if you will.
In fact, a decent team could probably be strung together comprising MLB-turned-NPB talent. Allow me to introduce you to the fairly impressive group that could challenge any major league franchise, as well as help you daily fantasy lineup
1. Leonys Martin (CF) Chiba Lotte Marines
Just on perseverance alone, Martin deserves this spot. In 2018, the Cuban import dealt with a life-threatening bacterial infection that ended his season. Last year, he pulled off the very rare feat of playing in both MLB and NPB after being released by the Indians. Martin owns two 30-plus-steal seasons in his career and is a quality fit at leadoff given the talent at our disposal.
2. Adam Jones (RF) Orix Buffaloes
After 14 years in the big leagues, which included five trips to the All-Star Game, Jones opted to go overseas this year for more money. The longtime Baltimore Oriole was actually still decent last season in his lone campaign with the Diamondbacks, plating a .260/.313/.414 line alongside 16 home runs and 67 RBI, so it looks like he has some left in the tank. Hence why he gets slotted into the all-important two-hole here.
3. Jose Lopez (2B) Yokohama DeNA BayStars
If this name rings memories of the Jose Lopez that made the All-Star team 14 years ago with the Mariners, you’re thinking of the same player, believe it or not. Lopez has been in Japan since 2013 and remains very formidable, mashing at least 25 taters in each of the past five seasons. He’s mostly a first baseman now but we’ll shift him back to second because it’s not difficult.
4. Justin Bour (1B) Hanshin Tigers
Who doesn’t like having a big bopper at first base that can be counted on for power? Thus, Bour enters this lineup as the everyday cleanup man. The former Marlin produced three 20-homer seasons in a recent four-year stretch and based on his leviathan, molten-rock frame and relatively young age (32), there’s reason to believe good days are still ahead for the 2017 Home Run Derby participant.
5. Tyler Austin (DH) Yokohama DeNA BayStars
Best known for pairing with Aaron Judge as the only teammates ever to go yard in their first career at-bats in the same game (and they did it back-to-back!), Austin is also one of the sport’s most prolific Three True Outcomes hitters. Literally, more than half of his 581 career plate appearances (302, to be exact) in the majors resulted in either a strikeout, homer or walk. Well, 33 of those saw him crank one out, so we’ll entrust him to provide protection for Bour in the lineup.
6. Christian Villanueva (3B) Nippon Ham Fighters
At one point, Villanueva looked like he was going to project as San Diego’s third baseman of the future. He did, after all, slug 19 homers before the All-Star break only two years ago. Villanueva managed only one tater after that, though, and hasn’t been seen in America since. However, the potential may still be there, even after flopping in his debut showing last season.
7. Gerardo Parra (LF) Yomiuri Giants↑
Nothing could stop the Baby Shark phenomenon throughout 2019 and we have Parra to thank for that spreading into baseball. The hit children’s song became a theme that summer and a rally cry, inspiring the Nationals to “stay in the fight” and ultimately win it all. While this will forever be Parra’s biggest contribution, the dude is also a respectable .278 lifetime hitter. Oh, and he’s still coming up to Baby Shark! The 20-second return to normalcy is a bonus.
8. Alcides Escobar (SS) Yakult Swallows
You’d think a former ALCS MVP that also hit leadoff for a World Series winner would be able to stay in The Show as long as he wants, but alas, that is not the case. Escobar was stuck in Triple-A purgatory last year before being released and is latching on with a Japanese club for the first time. The former Gold Glover can still play short as well as most, to go with a relatively decent bat. That gets him on the squad.
9. Moises Sierra (C) Chunichi Dragons
Yes, Sierra is actually an outfielder but with none of the MLB castoffs across the world having any experience behind the plate, the 31-year-old cracks the lineup by default as the one guy that has at least played catcher in winter ball (doing so in 2010 with Gigantes del Cibao). He managed only a .235 average in his four major league campaigns.
Kosuke Fukudome (Hanshin Tigers) and Dayan Viciedo (Chunichi Dragons) were once-promising Chicago outfielders. One disappointed for the White Sox, although Viciedo did display notable power at times throughout the first half of the 2010s. He’s delivered more consistent pop in his newer digs. The other, Fukudome, was largely a bust for the Cubs but is still shockingly holding up in his age-43 season. That merits the Bartolo Colon treatment. Cory Spangenberg (Seibu Lions) and Jose Pirela (Hiroshima Toyo Carp) make it on here for their versatility, while I also have to include Jerry Sands (Hansin Tigers) and Wladimir Balentien (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks).
1. Matt Moore (LHP) Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
Was Moore on the verge of finally bouncing back a year ago? We’ll never know because after dealing 10 shutout innings across his only two starts with Detroit, the former top prospect suffered a season-ending knee injury. While he mostly underachieved, Moore also had his moments. Never forget the southpaw’s eight-inning, 10-strikeout gem against the 2016 Cubs in the NLDS, which could have prevented the Cubs’ historic title if the Giants didn’t blow it in the ninth.
2. Daisuke Matsuzaka (RHP) Seibu Lions
The hype was very real for Dice-K. Not only did the Red Sox pay many millions of dollars to claim his services, they also supplied the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic with his own mental therapist, physical therapist, translator and personal assistant. Matsuzaka went 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA in his first two years and even helped reel in a championship for Boston, but the wheels came off right after that. He’s still worthy of being the No. 2 starter on this staff.
3. Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP) Yomiuri Giants
Since he spent all six of his major league seasons in Seattle, Iwakuma was quite underrated. Did you know the right-hander owns a career 63-39 record (!) and 3.42 ERA? Or that he once finished third in the AL Cy Young voting? Probably not. Iwakuma had to endure the cruel fate shared by ex-teammate Felix Hernandez of being really good but never getting to the playoffs. Iwakuma is 39 now but still a useful arm.
4. Tsuyoshi Wada (LHP) Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
Had he waited one more year before bolting back to Japan, Wada would be wearing very, very valuable bling right now. The veteran left-hander spent the 2014 and 2015 seasons in the U.S. — both with the Cubs — and was actually very solid. In 21 appearances (20 starts), Wada came away with an impressive 3.36 ERA. Unfortunately, injuries limited him in that second campaign. Since returning to NPB, Wada’s continued to provide steady pitching.
5. Sean Nolin (LHP Seibu Lions/Drew VerHagen (RHP) Nippon Ham Fighters
It was either Nick Martinez or an opener/primary pitcher tag team for the last spot in the rotation. Gotta be creative with a small-market mindset and go with the latter. VerHagen served in this exact role last year and actually fared just fine, producing a 4.18 ERA in his eight outings in which he followed Daniel Norris. Having Nolin, who isn’t bad at all, work as the opener deploys the same lefty-righty plan.
Hard-throwing Rubby De La Rosa (RHP, Yomiuri Giants) is best remembered as a starter but since coming back from his second Tommy John surgery last season, he’s performed as a closer and found success in this new capacity. Jay Jackson (RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines) and J.T. Chargois (RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) were in the big leagues as recently as a year ago, and with big strikeout numbers, they earn setup duty. Dennis Sarfate (RHP, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks), who was last seen in the majors prior to 2010 and is a former teammate of Craig Biggio (!!), makes the cut. Kazuhisa Makita (RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles), Jon Edwards (RHP, Hanshin Tigers) and Alan Busenitz (RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles) round it out.
This pretend expansion team would go 74-88 in the AL West. Not terrible at all.