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6 players from Asian baseball leagues who may factor into MLB free agency

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The St. Louis Cardinals have never hesitated to venture into Korea and Japan to find talent to augment their major league roster. 

Miles Mikolas, Aaron Brooks, Drew VerHagen, Kwang Hyun Kim, So Taguchi, and Seung Hwan Oh are all notable talents to come to the Cardinals from Nippon Professional Baseball League or the Korean Baseball Organization. The Cardinals have even dived into the high school ranks to sign Won-Bin Cho in January of 2021, an outfielder from Korea and the 20th-ranked prospect in the Cardinals system.

Heading into the offseason, there are several players from overseas who could impact the Cardinals' roster next year. Here is a selection of some potentially impactful players who have already announced their intentions or have indicated a desire to explore options to play in the MLB in 2023.

Kodai Senga, RHP

Softbank Hawks, NPB: 1.94 ERA, 144 IP, 49 BB, 156 K, 7 HR

The 29-year-old right-handed starter is one of the more decorated stars for the Softbank Hawks, who play in Japan's southern city of Fukuoka. Drafted by the Hawks in 2012, Senga has pitched in three all-star games, won the Japan Series five times, and led the league in strikeouts, ERA, and wins twice. He also won a Gold medal at the 2020 Olympics with Team Japan and will likely be a featured part of their 2023 World Baseball Classic squad.

Eligible for international free agency, Senga wouldn’t need to be posted, meaning he could sign with any club he desires rather than being forced into negotiating with a bid-winning team. He has already filed the paperwork necessary to become available once free agency opens.

Senga’s arsenal of pitches appears to translate well to the major leagues, utilizing a 95-97mph fastball (which can top 100 mph) accented by a slider and a forkball.

The righty starter could be one of the crown jewels of free agency this offseason as the pitching market is not particularly deep, but that also means acquiring Senga could be costly. He does have a Cardinals connection as his agent, Joel Wolfe of Wasserman Sports, is also the agent for Nolan Arenado. Still, the Chicago Cubs are considered early favorites for his services by many reports.

Drew Rucinski, RHP

NC Dinos, KBO: 2.97 ERA, 193.2 IP, 34 BB, 194 K, 14 HR

A Wisconsin native, Rucinski, 34, headed overseas to play for the NC Dinos of the KBO after four middling years in the MLB from 2014 to 2018. Since signing with the Dinos the righty has found some composure and established himself as one of the most dominant arms in the Korean League, and a strikeout king.

With a 53-36 record over four seasons and a 3.06 ERA, Rucinski has struck out a league-high 657 batters while having a walk rate of below 4.1% in his four seasons. Prior to 2022, he signed a $2 million dollar deal, the second most lucrative contract for an international player in league history. He played a major role in the Dinos 2020 KBO Championship (and earned a cool sword) and is set to come home and garner a payday.

The swing-and-miss ability Rucinski has with his splitter-slider combo is something the Cardinals have talked about coveting, and his strikeout rate stands out as transferable to the majors. While he is a risk, as the quality of hitters in Korea is considered below that of even the Japanese leagues, he could be a (relatively) low-cost starter who easily converts to a swing-and-miss reliever.

Shintaro Fujinami, RHP

Hanshin Tigers, NPB: 3.38 ERA, 66.7 IP, 21 BB, 65 K, 6 HR

Already set to be posted, Shintaro Fujinami is one of the biggest curiosities of Japanese baseball. At one time he was considered a premiere pitching prospect but has fallen off since 2017. Now he is one of the more reliable relief pitchers in Japan, with some of the best pure stuff in the world.

There have been questions about how he has been professionally handled by Hanshin, as they never gave him the opportunity to start, and sent him to the minors every year since 2017 despite owning a 3.40 ERA over that span, including a 2.77 ERA in 2022. Some believe a change of scenery might be best for him.

With a 100 mph-plus fastball and a slider-splitter combo that yielded a 9.1 Ks per nine innings rate last season, the biggest question is his command, as he’s prone to falling apart with the yips and wildly missing the strike zone. That tendency contributed to his demotion from starter to reliever in 2017.

Fujinami could be a gamble, but he likely wouldn’t command an exorbitant asking price.

Masataka Yoshida, OF

Orix Buffalo, NPB: .335 BA, 21 HR, 88 RBI, 80 BB, 41 SO, 1.008 OPS

A standout in the 2022 Japan Series, Yoshida helped lead his Orix Buffalo to a championship, including a towering walk-off home run in Game 5. The 29-year-old outfielder has now made it clear he wishes to head west and play in the MLB next season.

Yoshida won the batting title in 2020 and 2021, and finished second in 2022. He also slugged 21 home runs in 2022 with an OPS of 1.007 and a WRC+ of 201. He is the king of putting the bat on the ball while also owning the strike zone, taking a league-high 82 walks and striking out only 42 times in 515 plate appearances.

Yoshida is in the same category as Senga, a star who is going to command a major contract, something the Cardinals brass has never really done before. But he does solve a problem as a reliable contact hitter with some pop.

The Phillies are presently considered favorites for Yoshida’s services, as Bryce Harper is his favorite player.

Eric Jokisch, LHP

Kiwoom Heroes, KBO: 2.57 ERA, 185 IP, 33 BB, 154 K, 8 HR

When the KBO was the first league able to return to play after the 2020 coronavirus pandemic delayed the 2020 baseball seasons worldwide, Eric Jokisch was one of the standouts to get attention on ESPN broadcasts.  A Northwestern alum who played for the Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, and Oakland A’s before heading overseas, the starter has made 30 or more starts in each of his four seasons with the Kiwoom Warriors, pitching to a sub-three ERA in each of his last three years.

Last year was arguably his best in Korea, tallying a career-high in strikeouts, innings pitched, and quality starts. The Springfield, Illinois native grew up in Cardinals country and could be a depth option as a lefty starter or long reliever, something they will assuredly need as 14 different Cardinals were used as starters in 2022.

Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP

Yomiuri Giants, NPB: 3.32 ERA, 149 IP, 28 BB, 105 K, 17 HR

A former teammate of Miles Mikolas on the Yomiuri Giants, the most popular team in Japan, Sugano is in the later stages of his career but has been consistent as can be. While he hasn’t yet made his intentions known as a desire to be posted, the 33-year-old righty was posted after the 2021 season. While he was pursued by the Giants, Mets, and Blue Jays, he ultimately decided not to leave Yomiuri.

A two-time winner of the Eiji Sawamura award (the NPB Cy Young), Sugano seems to be statistically past his prime. After eight seasons of sub-three ERA, and three sub-two ERA seasons, Sugano had his worst year as a starter in 2022, going 10-7 with a 3.32 ERA.

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