The last instance of NPB teams sending players to play in North America was a slightly more complicated case than all the others. It involved two Japanese teams - the Chunichi Dragons and the Chiba Lotte Marines - and several minor league teams across several MLB organizations although mostly the California League team in Visalia, California.
The Dragons had sent some players (most notably Masahiro Yamamoto and Takeshi Yamazaki) to play in the Dodgers' organization for three years in the 1980's but that had stopped after 1989. In 1994 they worked out a deal with the Colorado Rockies to send two pitchers to Visalia which at the time was the Rockie's High-A affiliate and went by the name the Central Valley Rockies. The two players were Shigeki Noguchi and Kenichi Sasaki. The 20 year old Noguchi had a pretty good season - he went 8-3 in 26 games, 21 of which he started. He led the team in innings pitched with 137 2/3 and was second on the team in wins. I think his 2.55 ERA was the best on the team among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the league ERA title although the cut off was probably 135 innings - he may have been the ONLY pitcher on the roster to qualify for the ERA title. Overall he had the fifth best ERA on the team and the second best in the league behind Steve Lemke of Modesto's 2.32. His 161 strikeouts not only led the team but they led the entire California League. Noguchi was seventh on Baseball America's post-season California League Top 10 Prospects list. Sasaki wasn't as successful - he went 2-4 with an ERA of 4.67 in 52 innings across 27 games including four starts. He also notched a save. The two players were accompanied by coach Tomoyoshi Ohishi. One of their teammates, Angel Echevarria, ended up spending two seasons with the Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2003 and 2004.
At the end of the 1994 season the Rockies switched their High-A affiliate to Salem, Virginia in the Carolina League, leaving Visalia without a working agreement with a major league team. They operated as an independent team in 1995 and had to scrounge for players where ever they could get them. The Dragons again provided two players while the Chiba Lotte Marines sent over nine players. I suspect but don't know for sure that the Marines' involvement was spurred by their new manager Bobby Valentine. The Dragons and Marines appear to have been attempting to increase their presence in North America that year as both teams did training camp in Peoria, Arizona that spring. The Mariners hosted the Dragons while the Padres hosted the Marines. Lotte would also hold spring training in Peoria the next three seasons and have some sort of working agreement with the Padres - which is why Hideki Irabu was originally headed to San Diego.
For the second year in a row a pitcher from the Dragons was Visalia's best starter. Masataka Endo went 9-9 with an ERA of 3.76 in 28 games The nine wins led the team as did the nine losses. His 27 starts and 186 2/3 innings also led the staff. His 178 strikeouts led the entire league, making it two consecutive years that a Chunichi Dragon led the California League in strikeouts. The other Dragons pitcher was less successful. Kenichiro Idemoto went 5-6 with a 4.10 ERA in 31 games. The nine players the Marines sent included five pitchers. Junichiro Mutoh had probably the best performance out of these five, going 1-2 with a 3.52 ERA and five saves in 17 games out of the bullpen. Atsushi Yoshida had a 5-7 record and a 3.60 ERA in 13 starts. 30 year old Kiyokazu Seki led the team with 35 appearances - he went 5-6 with a 4.94 ERA and three saves mostly out of the bullpen. Takashi Wada went 1-0 in 17 appearances with an ERA of 4.62 while Yasuhiro Enoki with 4-7 in 13 starts with a 5.45 ERA.
Shoji Toyama put up the best showing of the four position players the Marines sent, hitting .297 with two home runs and 24 RBIs in 54 games. Hiroyasu Hayashi hit .268 in 40 games, Iwao Omura hit .261 in 41 games and Takashi Tachikawa hit .176 in 47 games.
Visalia kind of picked up a working agreement for the 1996 season. As best I can determine they were a co-op team working with both the Detroit Tigers (who had a High-A affiliate already in Lakeland of the Florida State League) and the Arizona Diamondbacks (who would not start play at the major league level until two years later). As a result they only received two players from Japan, both from the Marines. Makoto Itoh got into 34 games out of the bullpen, going 0-1 with a 3.94 ERA. Takahisa Hoshiba was one of the better starters on the team, going 8-6 in 16 starts. His 4.43 ERA was the best on the team for a pitcher with over 100 innings (there were only four such pitchers), his 108 strikeouts was third highest on the team and his eight wins was second best. He also notched a save in his five appearances out of the bullpen. (Those ERAs may seem high but keep in mind that the entire staff's ERA was 5.47 and the entire league had an ERA of 4.88.)
Visalia was not the only team to host a Japanese player in 1996 although this is where things get a little odd. 30 year old Tsuyoshi Wada was traded from the Chunichi Dragons to the Chiba Lotte Marines during the season. He ended up playing in nine games with the Memphis Chicks, the Double-A Southern League affiliate of the Padres. I don't know if he was sent to Memphis before or after the trade although given that the Marines had the agreement with the Padres I suspect it was after. It was not a good experience for Yoda - he posted an ERA of 11.72 in 7 2/3 innings. He may have made the acquaintance of several players who would go on to play in NPB although I don't know for sure if his time with the team overlapped with any of theirs. Rob Mattson spent 1997 and 1998 with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. Jeff Barry played in 48 games with the Marines in 2000. Greg LaRocca spent seven seasons in Japan with Hiroshima (2004-05), Yakult (2006) and Orix (2007-10) and made two All Star teams. Marc Kroon spent six season in Japan split evenly between the Yokohama Baystars (2005-07) and Yomiuri Giants (2008-10), making the All Star team four times and leading the Central League in saves in 2008. In addition, the team's roster also included future All Star Derrek Lee, who's father Leon Lee had a long career in Japan.
By 1997 Visalia was now a full fledged Oakland Athletics farm team, one of two the team had in the league (the other one was in Modesto, 130-ish miles to the northeast along California highway 99) so they weren't available as a place for an NPB team to send anyone. The Marines ended up sending two players to play for the Padres' Arizona Summer League team in Peoria, San Diego's spring training home they had shared with the Marines the past few seasons. Neither player covered himself in glory. Pitcher Masashi Iida went 0-2 with an ERA of 11.25 in 11 games. Third baseman Ryosuke Sawai only got into three games, hitting .100 in 10 at bats although he drew four walks to have an On-Base-Percentage of .357. One of their teammates, Rick Guttormson, would later pitch in Japan for four seasons, two with Yakult (2005-06) and two with Softbank (2007-08). The highlight of his time in Japan was the no-hitter he threw against Rakuten in 2006.
As usual I don't know why the Marines stopped sending players to the US after 1997 (or the Dragons after 1995 apparently). It may be that the Hideki Irabu incident may have soured relations between the Marines and Padres although the Marines did still do spring training in Peoria in 1998. It may also have been that the performances of Iida and Sawai were so poor that neither team felt they were getting anything out of the relationship. Whatever the reason the Marines didn't send anyone to North America again after 1997.
Actually, it wasn't just the Marines. In each of the 16 years between 1982 and 1997 at least one NPB team had sent players to play in North America. Ultimately ten of the twelve teams (everyone except Hankyu/Orix and Nippon-Ham) had players over here for at least two of those years. But since 1997 no NPB team has sent any players to play in the North American minor leagues. The only overseas leagues NPB teams have sent their players to have been fall/winter leagues both in the US (Arizona Fall League, Hawaiian Winter League) and other countries (Mexico, Australia, etc).
Here's a list of all 18 players the Dragons and Marines sent to the US between 1994 and 1997:
|Masataka Endo||1995||Visalia Oaks||1993 4th Dragons||Dragons 1994-2006, Swallows 2007-08|
|Yasuhiro Enoki||1995||Visalia Oaks||1990 6th Orions||Orions/Marines 1991-97, Giants 1998-99, Marines 2000. NPB Stats here.|
|Hiroyasu Hayashi||1995||Visalia Oaks||1989 6th Orions||Orions/Marines 1990-98|
|Takahisa Hoshiba||1996||Visalia Oaks||1992 4th Marines||Marines 1993-99|
|Kenichiro Idemoto||1995||Visalia Oaks||1991 5th Dragons||Dragons 1992-99, Lions 2000|
|Masashi Iida||1997||AZL Padres||1995 3rd Marines||Marines 1996-99|
|Makoto Ito||1996||Visalia Oaks||1991 6th Carp||Carp 1992-95, Marines 1996, Swallows 1997|
|Junichiro Muto||1995||Visalia Oaks||1992 1st Marines||Marines 1993-2001, Fighters 2002-03, Lions 2004|
|Shigeki Noguchi||1994||Central Valley Rockies||1992 3rd Dragons||Dragons 1993-05, Giants 2006-08|
|Iwao Omura||1995||Visalia Oaks||1987 6th Orions||Orions/Marines 1988-2003|
|Kenichi Sasaki||1994||Central Valley Rockies||1991 2nd Dragons||Dragons 1992-95|
|Ryosuke Sawai||1997||AZL Padres||1995 1st Marines||Marines 1996-2005|
|Kiyokazu Seki||1995||Visalia Oaks||1986 1st Orions||Orions/Marines 1987-96|
|Takashi Tachikawa||1995||Visalia Oaks||1993 2nd Marines||Marines 1994-2004, Tigers 2005-06|
|Shoji Toyama||1995||Visalia Oaks||1985 1st Tigers||Tigers 1986-90, Orions/Marines 1991-97, Tigers 1998-2002|
|Takashi Wada||1995||Visalia Oaks||1992 3rd Marines||Marines 1993-2002|
|Tsuyoshi Yoda||1996||Memphis Chicks||1989 1st Dragons||Dragons 1990-96, Marines 1996-97, Fighters 1998-99, Tigers 2000|
|Atsushi Yoshida||1995||Visalia Oaks||1991 1st Marines||Marines 1992-2003, Tigers 2003-04|
|2003 Chunichi Sports #24 (Endo)|
|1995 BBM #222|
|1997 BBM #396|
|1999 BBM #268|
|1998 BBM #146|
|1996 BBM #502|
|2001 BBM #233|
|1994 Classic Best Central Valley Rockies #14|
|1994 Fleer ProCards #3200|
|2000 Upper Deck Victory #34|
|1994 BBM #428|
|1992 BBM #462|
|1994 Classic Best Central Valley Rockies #21|
|1994 Fleer ProCards #3203|
|2002 BBM 2nd Version #763|
|1987 Takara Orions #21 (Seki)|
|2003 BBM Marines #M060|
|1993 BBM #112|
Shoji Toyama had one of the more interesting careers of all of these players. He was the ace pitcher and cleanup hitter at Yashiro Daiichi High School, going 69-3 while hitting .440 with 35 home runs. If I'm understanding the Google translation of his Japanese Wikipedia page correctly, he threw 11 no-hitters in high school. He was the number one pick of the Hanshin Tigers in the 1985 draft although only after the Tigers lost out on the lottery for Kazuhiro Kiyohara. He had a decent rookie season for an 18 year old in 1986, going 8-5 with 4.22 ERA in 24 starts (27 games total) but he hurt his left shoulder the following year and only got into nine games. He bounced back a bit in 1988, going 2-9 with an ERA of 3.84 in 42 games mostly out of the bullpen but his numbers and playing time deteriorated over the next two seasons. He was traded to the Lotte Orions after the 1991 season for former Carp All Star Yoshihiko Takahashi but his shoulder injuries continued to cut into his playing time - he only got into about 75 innings with the ichi-gun team between 1991 and 1994. After nine years as a professional pitcher he decided to switch to being an outfielder for the 1995 season. The Marines shipped him off to Visalia for his first taste as a position player and as I mentioned earlier, he did pretty well, hitting .297 in 51 games with nine doubles, two triples and two home runs (and 38 strikeouts with only three walks). However his success in the California League did not translate to success in Japan at the ichi-gun level. He only hit .167 with the Marines in 1995 after returning from the Oaks and only hit .250 in four at bats in 1996 (while striking out three times) - despite leading the ni-gun Eastern League in hits that season. The Marines released him after he spent the entire 1997 season with the farm team. He ended up rejoining the Tigers and felt that since the three years away from the mound had allowed his shoulder to heal, he should return to pitching. After spending most of 1998 with the Tigers' farm team (and posting a 7.59 ERA in the 11 games he got into with the top team) he put together the best two seasons of his career. In 1999 he got into 63 games in middle relief and went 2-1 with a 2.06 ERA. His first victory in 1999 was his first victory since 1989 - the ten year gap between wins was the longest at the time in NPB history. He won the Comeback Player Award that season. He followed that up in 2000 by going 2-0 with a 2.55 ERA in 54 games, all out of the bullpen again. He was named to his only All Star game that season (as a replacement when Shinji Sasaoka of the Carp got injured). He was particularly effective against Hideki Matsui, holding him hitless in 13 at bats and earning the nickname "Godzilla-killer". He started suffering from some injuries - not sure if it was his knees or his back - in 2001 and the Tigers released him at the end of 2002 when he put up a 9,49 ERA in 23 appearances. He retired and became a baseball commentator for a couple years before spending seven seasons as a coach for the Tigers. He's been the head coach of the Naniwa High School baseball team since 2019.
|2000 BBM Late Series #555|
|1992 BBM All Stars #A8|
|2003 BBM 1st Version #302|
|1991 BBM #158|
|1994 Classic Best Central Valley Rockies #28|
|1994 Fleer ProCards #3221|