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Potential free agent target: Haruki Nishikawa

Could the Royals look Far East to fill out their lineup?

MLB: Spring Training-Oakland Athletics at Yomiuri Giants Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Dayton Moore has been aggressive this off-season seeking to improve the Royals, and he recently indicated he may not be done. In an interview with MLB Network Radio, he said the club may still be looking to add a left-handed bat, particularly one that could play either third base or outfield. Last week, I wrote about some potential free agent targets that could fit that bill, but there was one less obvious candidate that could be a fit in Kansas City - Japanese free agent Haruki Nishikawa.

The Royals haven’t signed a free agent directly from Japan since they inked reliever Yasushiko Yabuta in 2007. But the style of play in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) would be an ideal fit for what the Royals like to do in Kauffman Stadium, with an emphasis on contact, speed, and defense. The Royals saw that when they acquired Japanese-born outfielder Nori Aoki from the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2014 season, and Nishikawa could bring several of the same skills.

Nishikawa has played for the Nippon Ham Fighters since he was a 19-year old in 2011. A left-handed hitter, Nishikawa brings a high-contact approach, great speed, and terrific outfield defense. In his ten-year career, he has hit .286/.379/.395 and would profile as a role-type player in the big leagues, with some comparisons to former Twins outfielder Ben Revere. According to a scouting report from Ted Baarda at Sports Info Solutions, Nishkawa could be a sold table-setter for a lineup.

Haruki Nishikawa has the prototypical leadoff hitter skill set, as a center fielder with patience and speed. At the plate the lefthanded Nishikawa holds the bat pointing straight up in the air, and attacks his pitch with a flat, line-drive swing. His hands are quick to the ball, allowing him to turn on pitches inside and he lacks the big leg kick that is common in today’s game, opting instead for a small toe-tap. He tries to spray liners around the field and keep the infield honest with bunt fakes and attempts, and he rarely chases pitches out of the zone.

He has plus-plus speed, swiping 323 bases with an 87.8 percent success rate, leading the Pacific League in steals three times. Even at age 28, he stole 42 bases in 115 games this year.

Nishikawa has used his speed on defense as well, excelling with the glove. He has won three Gold Gloves in the outfield and is capable of playing all three outfield positions. But he actually began his career as an infielder, splitting time at first and second base early in his career. For a team that values positional versatility, his ability to play both infield and outfield should be an attractive asset.

Nishikawa brings a patient approach at the plate, drawing 90+ walks in each of the last three seasons with a career 12 percent walk rate. He enjoyed his best season in 2020 after being named team captain, hitting .306/.430/.396 with a 17.6 percent walk rate. Despite going deep in counts, he doesn’t strike out much, with an 18.3 percent career strikeout rate.

The high-contact and speed comes with a trade-off - a lack of power. Standing at just 5’10’’ and 160 pounds, Nishikawa won’t be able to muscle the ball out of a lot of MLB parks. Even in the smaller ballparks in Japan, Nishikawa has only hit 59 home runs in ten seasons, including five this year. He doesn’t even produce many doubles. He focused on putting the ball in play rather than driving the ball back in 2016, and he produced his first .300 season.

Nishikawa must go through the posting system arranged between NPB and MLB for players that haven’t met the nine-year threshold for international free agency. That means that his original club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, will get 20 percent of his contract up to $25 million. Steve Adams at MLB Trade Rumors writes that Nishikawa should be expected to get less than the three-year, $21 million Shogo Akiyama received from the Cincinnati Reds last winter. That could be in the range of what the Royals are looking for out of a role player, and his versatility could allow him to fill needs without blocking younger players.

Bringing a player over from Japan who has never faced Major League pitching is a gamble. Getting acclimated to Major League velocity and ballparks is one thing, the cultural adjustment of going to a foreign country is another. But Nishikawa brings a lot to the table that the Royals like, and he could be a good fit for what they are trying to do.