While the season is still ongoing, and it appears that the Rakuten Eagles of the NPB will make the playoffs rather easily, it is never too early to look at the off-season and that is what I am doing here. Rather than a real "plan", in this post I will just list some players that I think would make interesting targets for the Eagles, many of whom would be good targets for any NPB team (this post is just Rakuten specific, so their assumed roster needs are taken into consideration here).
Keep Casey McGehee
I would let all the foreign pitchers walk, and I have a feeling Andruw Jones will retire. If he is interested in coming back to Rakuten, I think it is at least worth considering, though if he takes another step back in 2014, it would be a serious problem. Even with McGehee's good season, I think it is doubtful that MLB teams are going to reevaluate him, especially with his shortcomings defensively at 3rd. In the Majors, his bat isn't good enough for 1st base and his defense not good enough for 3rd. With his bat playing better in the NPB, it will play at first, or as Rakuten has done, you can ignore his shortcomings defensively at third base.
Japanese Players in the United States:
Make a run at Hiroki Kuroda
Kuroda may use the NPB as a barganing chip with the Yankees again, as his contract is up. Rakuten could use the money from posting Masahiro Tanaka to offer him a competitive salary (perhaps 10-15 million dollars American money). They could replace an ace with an ace. Rakuten could make Kuroda the highest paid player in the NPB, and I think he would be worth it. It would probably be a long shot because chances are that he will want to remain with the Yankees or pitch with his old team, the Hiroshima Carp, but it is at least worth exploring. He is very good in the MLB, so he might not pitch quite at a 2013 Tanaka level, but he could still probably be the best pitcher in the NPB.
Rakuten should use their foreign player slots (4 on the Ichi-Gun, most teams carry a couple more in the Ni-gun that they can rotate in and out) on starters, not relievers, so Okajima makes a lot of sense to help the back of the bullpen, as Rasner will not be back (Tommy John Surgery) and even if Takashi Saito comes back, he has a long injury history. Okajima was dominant in the NPB in 2012 and very good in the PCL in 2013, but not really given much of a shot in the MLB. It makes sense for him to come back to Japan, and would make sense for Rakuten, though he will have a lot of potential suitors.
Dice-K wasn't great in AAA, and has struggled with the Mets (and has had injury problems over the last few seasons), but the 90 MPH fastball with a 79 MPH changeup could still play in the NPB. I have to imagine he is coming back to Japan for 2014, and I think he is a reasonable gamble for a team with some extra money, and a need in the rotation, especially since he won't cost a foreign spot.
Tanaka was a high OBP/low SLG guy in the PCL in 2013 with a long history of NPB success. He is most useful as a middle infielder, even though he isn't a great defender, but Kaz Matsui isn't a plus defender either and he played all year at short. I think Tanaka is great Matsui insurance, in case the later's skill set declines anymore.
I like Nakajima better than Tanaka, but he is still under contract with the Oakland Athletics. They removed him from the 40 man roster and he didn't hit much in the PCL, so they may be willing to release him. He is a guy who could take over shortstop for Rakuten and be a really nice addition, though he may be more interested in joining one of his old teams.
A lot of success in both the NPB and AAA, things just didn't work out in the Majors (with both the Rangers' park and usage playing large roles). Very useful reliever, especially in the NPB, where sidearmers aren't often relegated to platoon roles.
Probably a reliever now and his MLB career is probably over the way he has been passed around the past couple of years. Fastball and changeup velocity stayed steady in his MLB career and his curveball actually got harder.
Korean Free Agents:
The hardest thrower in the KBO could become the hardest thrower in the NPB if he chooses to go that route. Command isn't great, but the selection of pitches should be good enough to play as a starter in the NPB. If nothing else, he takes over as a dominant force at the end of games.
Rakuten seems to be on the fringes of discussions with Oh, the best KBO reliever. He is a good back of the bullpen piece, but he may turn out to be too pricey.
A lot of question marks, enough that makes me believe he will stay in the KBO for another year to try to have a better season, but some clear pitching talent and a desire to leave the KBO.
The biggest obstacle to Shirek having a big league career is a lack of a real out pitch to get strikeouts. This would probably matter less in the NPB. Solid fastball, throws strikes, would be successful in Japan.
Domestic free agents:
Keep Kazuya Fujita
Even if he doesn't profile as the starting 2nd baseman going forward, his defense is special enough that he would be a great utility player. If Rakuten is unable to find anyone else to start second or short, then Fujita is good enough to start in my opinion.
Wakui has taken a huge step back this season statistically, being relegated to low leverage relief work, but he still has shown decent velocity, and could be a nice buy low opportunity for the Eagles, as the Lions may not be interested in keeping him around.
A former Rakuten player, Nakamura still plays mainly 3rd base despite being 40 years old. If McGehee heads elsewhere, Nakamura is probably a good option to explore.
Not having a good season this year, but he is just 30 years old, throws in the high 80s, and has some NPB success under his belt. He is a reliever all the way, but could be a guy that is cheap and doesn't take up a foreign roster spot.
Another third base option, though a lesser one than Nakamura or Mcgehee. He has some doubles power and any evaluation of him would probably start and end on how you believe his defense rates. He isn't quite the power hitter you want on a corner, and he doesn't really run either. If he is a plus defender, I don't think it matters.
Another reliever that throws in the high 80s on average, having a little bit of a better year than Oshimoto and has been an innings eater in the rotation before. He is a couple of years older, but the flexibility makes him a little more attractive.
When healthy, he has been an effective pitch to contact starter. The main drawback is that he is 30 years old and has never really been an innings eater.
Fastball would play up in Japan, and his hard curveball isn't something that a lot of NPB hitters see often. Can start or relieve.
Cleto could unseat Scott Mathieson as the hardest throwing pitcher in the NPB. Was a waiver claim in the middle of the season by the Royals, but stretched out some as a starter in the PCL with the Cardinals. Has a weird home run problem, and it is unclear how it would translate.
He usually has no idea where the ball is going, but he can hit 100 MPH as well, and just his sheer stuff is good enough that he should get more swings and misses out of the zone if he pitched in the NPB. He is a good guy to take a chance on, even though it is highly unlikely you could get him to start.
Has NPB experience, survived tough run environment in Albuquerque in 2013 and has gotten his fastball up to 95 MPH in the past. He worked mostly out of the rotation in 2013, and reportedly sat 90-94 MPH according to Isotopes beat writer Chris Jackson.
Gained fastball velocity as the year went along and had a pretty good year in the more pitcher friendly portion of the PCL. Not a high strikeout guy, but doesn't walk much either, potentially a guy who fits in quite well.
Still has good fastball velocity, but limited to a reliever, I don't think he will get a guaranteed deal in the Majors.
KBO experience, great AAA season. Can start, probably a reliever ideally. Got up to 95 MPH last year when I saw him.
Can pitch and hit, gives the roster some flexibility, a good use of a foreign player spot.
Not much of a power guy at first base in the PCL, but high OBPs with large walk rates. Already 30 years old with no MLB experience, so you would think he would be willing to make some guaranteed money overseas. A worthwhile gamble if his power plays up in the NPB.
What Rakuten will really need, especially if they have to replace Andruw Jones, will be power. Gomez provides that, with ISOs over .250 the last two years in the International League (and .217 the year before that).
A 1st baseman with a lot of power, but not a lot of walks and quite a bit of strikeouts. This seems like the kind of AAA hitters that eventually come to Japan and can have success.
For some reason, NPB teams rarely if ever sign foreign good defensive shortstops. Perhaps teams believe that it is easier to buy power and produce defense from the organization through the draft and the Ni-gun. However, Rakuten will never develop a defensive shortstop like Brendan Ryan. After a left side of Matsui and Mcgehee in 2013, the difference in batted balls turned into outs with a Ryan at shortstop would be extremely easy to spot. If MLB teams believe his bat has sunken to a place where it will be tough to give him a guaranteed deal, Rakuten could theoretically sweep in and over him guaranteed money and a starting job.