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Thursday, January 5, 2023

Active Player Draft 2022: Shotaro Kasahara OUT, Seiya Hosokawa IN

Happy New Year. To commemorate the beginning of 2023, I'd like to recap on some old news. 

The first NPB 'Active Player Draft' took place on the 9th of December this year. Modeled on the MLB Rule 5 draft, this draft was established to ensure middling players could move to greener pastures to try to revive their stalled careers or get better opportunities elsewhere. It has been a mission of the NPB's Player Association of the past few years and this dumbed down version is the start of freer player movement between clubs. The clubs themselves still hold the power over players and can nominate three players they feel would benefit from this system. The Rule 5 draft however is more systematic in that roster allowances and organizational years are taken into account to determine who is eligible. Somewhat unsurprisingly the first step toward this kind of player movement still has clubs with reigns in hand. 

Some commentators have mentioned that this system is a glorified trade table but at least one good thing to come of this is teams have to move at least one player. In the future it is hoped that there will be more rounds to the Active Player Draft but it seems this year was conservative with clubs only opting for one round. 

Amongst all this, the Dragons moved on 2018 opening day starter, Shotaro Kasahara. The lefty has had heart problems that knocked about his development. An arrhythmia knocked him out for roughly a year after he had broken into the top team and he hasn't quite been the same since. A 4+ ERA on the farm last year is a far cry from the results he was putting with the first team in his second year as a professional. Some concern lies over the velocity difference between his change-up and fastball making some think he's just a left-handed Shunta Wakamatsu who similarly got dominated as he lacked a higher velocity fastball to mix with his change-up. Kasahara can throw a cutter as well to decent effect and, I think, has more to him than Wakamatsu but his development has somewhat stagnated. Talk around the Dragons team before he packed his bags was that he might be a bullpen option in 2023. This conversation is no longer necessary as the Dragons have turned Kasahara into outfielder Seiya Hosokawa. If we take into account this drafting and the previous trade with the Baystars, we've traded two lefty pitchers and an outfielder for an infielder. Baystars get Kyoda and Kasahara, we get Hosokawa and Sunada. 

Who is Seiya Hosokawa? Hosokawa has been a fan favourite of Baystars fan since he was drafted. A native of the Kanagawa area, Hosokawa hit 62 homers in high school before being drafted in the 4th round with the Baystars in 2016. Hopes have been high for the slugger with some expectation that he might have been able to turn it on and replace Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh when he made his move to the Majors, but it hasn't quite happened. Hosokawa has been good in spurts but overall not good enough to solidify a place the line-up for more than a few games at a time. In the end, Hosokawa is still only 24 years old, 9 months older than Kosuke Ukai who profiles perhaps similarly. Kasahara on the other hand at 27 is at a stage where he really should be a starter by now and have developed a role. On that balance alone, it might be safe to say the Dragons have traded for more potential upside. Hosokawa has hit 10+ homeruns for the Baystars every season bar one with a high of 16 in 2021. He won the homerun champion title in 2020 with 13 homers in 212 plate appearances. Hosokawa only hit 11 this year, but this is still significantly better than any Dragons hitter has done in recent years. It is worth noting however that the Eastern League is much more home-run friendly than the Western League where the Dragons' farm team plays. Either way, if Hosokawa can go some way to replicating this form in the Western League, he'll be sure to see plenty of chances with the top-team.

In terms of weaknesses, it's hard to really point at any one thing. His OPS gradually improved every year until 2022 where it went down 100 points from .968 to .834. A down year really with little explanation apart from an uptick in strikeouts. Overall, Hosokawa's consistency on the farm is relatively encouraging. That shift from the farm to the top-team seems to be the most difficult but with players like Keita Sano ahead of him in left-field, he has only been able to secure scattered appearances in right-field challenging the likes of Taishi Kusumoto and Kazuki Kamizato. Hosokawa did not do very well in his first-team appearances this year with only 20 PA and a single hit to his name. With Taiki Sekine also returning to favour under Daisuke Miura, it seems as though there's not much room to experiment with Hosokawa.

To see how this affects the roster, well, it adds a bat a removes a pitcher at the most basic level. But if we consider it in the context of the trade with Sunada and Kyoda as well, we've swapped a good defensive short-stop for a high potential, younger, power-bat while the pitcher trade is more or less just shuffling the deck with like for like lefties. 

Hosokawa adds more depth to the power-hitting stocks for the Dragons who honestly have lacked much in that department over the years. To restate, I think his best comp is likely going to be Kosuke Ukai with the two likely competing for those corner outfield jobs. Alongside Ukai and Hosokawa are the foreign bats of Aquino and Almonte while the other options in outfield like Kenta Bright and Hironori Miyoshi could yet still surprise with some hidden power of their own. I don't think adding Hosokawa moves the needle a whole lot for the Dragons, but considering Kasahara's value was rather low within the organisation and Hosokawa is young with upside, it's an agreeable move.  Hosokawa offers more upside than Kasahara currently presents but one could argue that point if we consider Kyoda as the other move in this transaction.

What this does open up potentially is the ability to drop or rest Aquino, and still maintain some potential power in the line-up. Similarly, Hosokawa could enter the competition for the left-field as well. Overall, I see this addition as one that increases competition for the outfield spots which I only see as a good thing. It also diversifies the options available to the team to be able to chop and change based on roster demands. There has also been some suggestion that Hosokawa could play first-base as well which could add more depth to an area that really doesn't have much to it.

In other more whelming news, on the 27th of December the Dragons announced they would be welcoming back catcher, Takuma Kato from the Chiba Lotte Marines after completing what is essentially a free agent signing. A trade was made with the Marines for no compensation. In some odd miscalculation, the Dragons found themselves short at catcher despite releasing long tenured Iori Katsura just after the draft. The team must have thought they would have been able to trade for someone better but in the end left the active player with only Hosokawa to show and no further trade deals made. Perhaps there was an impression another club was willing to give up a certain catcher but perhaps the right parameters weren't met or they simply changed their mind. Either way its probably the safest of back-up options as Kato is only one-year removed from working with the Dragons pitchers and will be familiar with many of them making the transition relatively simple. I don't think there's any expectation Kato will challenge for the first-team mask, but he will plug a hole in what looks more or less like a complete roster now.

While we're here, some comments made by Tatsunami to the media regarding recruiting:

  • In their pursuit for a foreign slugger, the Dragons apparently had Nomar Mazara as their top pick (someone I mentioned in one of my podcasts) while Luis Brinson, most recently of the San Francisco Giants, was their second choice. Mazara was more interested in returning to the MLB, while Brinson was also receiving interest from the Yomiuri Giants. Mazara certainly would have been my first choice as well, and it is a pity the Dragons missed out on him this time.
  • The second pick at the 2022 draft, Kaito Muramatsu, was apparently a last minute choice as the team were set on going after Tenri University's short-stop Atsuki Tomosugi. It was Tatsunami's last-minute close-up look at Muramatsu that tipped the scales with the Dragon's manager impressed with the hitting prowess of the Meiji University captain. Tomosugi ended up going to the Chiba Lotte Marines immediately after Muramatsu was selected by the Dragons.

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