The St. Louis Cardinals have never been shy about venturing to Korea and Japan to source 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 coming to the Cardinals from the Nippon Professional Baseball League or the Korean Baseball Organization. The Cardinals even dove through the high school ranks to sign Won-Bin Cho in January 2021, a Korean outfielder and the 20th-ranked prospect in the Cardinals system.
As the offseason approaches, several foreign players could impact the Cardinals’ roster next year. Here’s a selection of a few potentially impactful players who have already announced their intentions or indicated a desire to explore options to play in MLB in 2023.
Kodai Senga, RHP
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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 most decorated stars for the Softbank Hawks, who play in the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka. Drafted by the Hawks in 2012, Senga pitched 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 part of their 2023 World Baseball Classic squad.
Eligible for international free agency, Senga would not need to be affected, meaning he could sign with any club of his choice rather than being forced to negotiate with a winning team. He has already filed the necessary paperwork to become available once free agency opens.
Senga’s pitch arsenal seems to translate well to the majors, utilizing a 95-97mph fastball (which can top 100mph) accented with a slider and forkball.
The right-handed starter could be one of the crown jewels of free agency this offseason as the market for pitchers isn’t particularly deep, but that also means acquiring Senga could be costly. He has a connection to the Cardinals as his agent, Joel Wolfe of Wasserman Sports, is also Nolan Arenado’s agent. 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, 194K, 14 HR
A Wisconsin native, Rucinski, 34, headed overseas to play for KBO’s NC Dinos after four lackluster years in MLB from 2014-2018. Since signing with the Dinos, the right-hander has found a little cold-blooded and established himself as one of the most dominant weapons in the Korean League and a strikeout king.
With a 53-36 record over four seasons and a 3.06 ERA, Rucinski struck out a league-high 657 batters while having a walk rate of less than 4.1 percent in his four seasons. Prior to 2022, he signed a $2 million contract, the second-highest lucrative contract for an international player in league history. He played a major role in the 2020 KBO Dinos Championship (and won a cool sword) and is about to go home and collect a payday.
Rucinski’s swing-and-miss ability with his splitter-slider combo is something the Cardinals have spoken of coveting, and his strikeout rate stands out as transferable to the Majors. Although he’s a risk, as the quality of batting in Korea is considered lower than even in Japanese leagues, he could be a (relatively) inexpensive starter who easily converts into a swing-and-miss reliever.
Shintaro Fujinami, RHP
Hanshin Tigers, NPB: 3.38 ERA, 66.7 IP, 21 BB, 65 K, 6 HR
Already ready to be displayed, Shintaro Fujinami is one of the biggest curiosities in Japanese baseball. At one point, he was considered a top pitching prospect, but he’s been dropping since 2017. He’s now one of the most reliable relief pitchers in Japan, with some of the best pure stuff in the world.
There have been questions about how he was treated professionally by Hanshin as they never gave him a chance to start and sent him to the miners every year since 2017 despite having an ERA. of 3.40 over that span, including an ERA of 2.77 in 2022. Some think a change of scenery might be better for him.
With a 100+ mph fastball and a slider-splitter combo that delivered a rate of 9.1 Ks per nine innings last season, the bigger question is his command, as he’s prone to crashing with the yapping and wildly missing the strike zone. This trend contributed to his demotion from starter to reliever in 2017.
Fujinami might be a gamble, but he probably wouldn’t ask an exorbitant price.
Masataka Yoshida, DE
Orix Buffalo, NPB: .335 BA, 21 HR, 88 RBI, 80 BB, 41 SO, 1.008 OPS
A star of the 2022 Japan Series, Yoshida helped his Orix Buffalo win a championship, including a commanding home run in Game 5. The 29-year-old outfielder has now made it clear he wants to head west and play in MLB next season.
Yoshida won the batting title in 2020 and 2021 and finished second in 2022. He also hit 21 homers 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 owning the strike zone, making a league-high 82 walks, and striking out just 42 times in 515 plate appearances.
Yoshida is in the same category as Senga, a star who will command a major contract, something the Cardinals’ bosses have never really done before. But he solves a problem as a reliable contact hitter with some pop.
The Phillies are currently considered the 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, 154K, 8 HR
When the KBO was the first league able to resume play after the 2020 coronavirus pandemic delayed the 2020 baseball seasons around the world, Eric Jokisch was one of the most notable to draw attention to the ESPN broadcasts. A former Northwest who played for the Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs and Oakland A before moving overseas, the starter has made 30 or more starts in each of his four seasons with the Kiwoom Warriors, throwing to a sub-three ERA in each of his last three years.
Last year was arguably his best in Korea, with career-high strikeouts, innings pitched and quality starts. The Springfield, Illinois native grew up in Cardinal country and could be a depth option as a left-handed starter or long reliever, which they’ll definitely need as 14 different Cardinals have been used as starters in 2022 .
Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP
Yomiuri Giants, NPB: 3.32 ERA, 149 IP, 28 BB, 105K, 17 HR
A former teammate of Miles Mikolas of the Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s most popular team, Sugano is in the latter stages of his career but has been as consistent as can be. Although he has yet to make his intentions known as a desire to be affected, the 33-year-old right-hander was affected after the 2021 season. While being chased by the Giants, Mets and Blues Jays, he ultimately decided not to leave Yomiuri.
Tomoyuki Sugano feels like an obvious target for the #Angels. The 31-year-old had an ERA of 2.32 on over 1,000 IPs in Japan.
Sugano has a plus slider, plus drive, above average shift/forkball, and average fastball (91-95 mph). Projects as a solid mid-rotation starter. pic.twitter.com/scpFsWFdbl
— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) December 23, 2020
A two-time winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award (the NPB Cy Young), Sugano statistically appears to be past his prime. After eight under-three ERA seasons and three under-two ERA seasons, Sugano had his worst year as a starter in 2022, going 10-7 with a 3.32 ERA.