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The Import Market

Scouting a trio of potential Japanese posting candidates.

World Baseball Classic - Championship Round - Game 2 - United States v Japan Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Hey there, everybody. Apologies for the late post, but the day job hasn’t been cooperating this week.

The offseason will not officially begin for a couple weeks still; not until the World Series comes to an end will clubs be free to begin pursuing their team-building plans. There are reasons, obviously; preventing both head starts by clubs not busy with the whole postseason thing and thunder-stealing on an epic scale by teams wheeling and dealing during MLB’s greatest showcase are the two primaries.

However, the offseason being required to hold off on its official starting bell for a little while longer doesn’t mean we are entirely without news, even official news. Most intriguing at the moment is news that one of the best pitchers in NPB, Japan’s top professional league, will be posted this offseason. Yusei Kikuchi, a big-stuff lefty who put up an historically great season in 2017, will go on the market sometime this offseason, and while he doesn’t bring quite the level of froth and foam we saw last year with the near-unprecedented talent that is Shohei Otani, Kikuchi has the potential to make a big-time impact with a big league club.

We’ll get to Kikuchi in a moment, though. There are, in fact, three Japanese pitchers who could potentially be posted this offseason. Now, how likely each is to actually hit the market is a matter of gradation; Kikuchi is already unofficially confirmed, while the other two have essentially said in the past they’d like to come to MLB, and could maybe see a posting this year. No guarantees, though.

I’ll be upfront about my feelings: all three of these players would be worth the investment to bring them over, I believe. Kikuchi is one of my favourite players in the free agent market this offseason, full stop. The other two I’m slightly less high on, but still believe they could be impact pitchers in the big leagues. If I owned a major league team, or were sitting in the GM chair with a blank check and a mandate to build a great club, I would literally sign all three of them in one offseason if I could. Of course, that’s not really realistic, but in my estimation one could build one of the best pitching staffs in the majors by nabbing all three, or even two of three.

As to how realistic it is for the Cardinals to be involved? Well, that’s slightly more complicated; the Cards have, in the past, shied away from big investments in Asian players coming over. However, the last couple years have seen them take more risks in that arena; the signing of Seung-Hwan Oh three years ago was a surprise, but a very welcome one, as the Redbirds decided they had enough confidence in their statistical conversions and scouting presence to bring the Korean (by way of NPB, remember), over to the states. Oh’s brilliant first year performance made that gamble look brilliant; his possibly-health-related struggles in 2017 took a little lustre off, but not all of it, certainly.

Even more remarkable was the club’s pursuit of Miles Mikolas last offseason; yes, Mikolas is a white dude from Florida, but he was still being evaluated as a pitcher in the Japanese major leagues, and the Cardinals felt strongly enough about him to make him a top priority in the free agent market. We all saw how that turned out. What I’m hoping is that the Cards feel confident enough in their Asian evaluations to wade into these waters again, because in a free agent market without a ton of great pitching options, I really believe you could have two of the top, say, five or six free agent starters coming out of NPB this winter.

But enough about the generalities, let’s get to some scouting reports, beginning with the most established and successful of the trio.

Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP, Yomiuri Giants

6’0”, 195 lbs; B/T: Right/Right

DOB: 11 October 1989

2018 Statistics: 26 GS, 192 IP, 2.25 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 1.7 BB/9

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Over the past five seasons, Tomoyuki Sugano has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the NPB, year after year. Beginning in 2014, he has made 23, 25, 26, 25, and 26 starts. (That’s a full season for NPB pitchers, one of the reasons there’s always concern as a Japanese pitcher in MLB pushes toward 30 starts late in a season.) He has posted the following ERAs: 2.33, 1.91, 2.01, 1.59, 2.25. In other words, Tomoyuki Sugano is a bad, bad man.

He is also a man who will pitch the 2019 season, either in Japan or in the States, as a 29 year old. That’s important, because it means the clock is very much ticking on his opportunities to make a splash in America. He’s spoken in the past about his desire to come to the U.S., but up until now things like helping his Giants club defend a title, as well as the fact his uncle is the manager of said club, have stopped him from pushing too hard to do so. If he’s going to make the transition, though, he may be approaching the end of the window where he could make a real impact.

The bad news is that his club, Yomiuri, is under no obligation to post Sugano, who has pitched six seasons in NPB, all for the Giants; Japanese players do not become free agents until nine seasons. Thus, there’s quite a bit of club control Yomiuri would have to give up, of one of the most successful pitchers in Japan, in order to allow Sugano his shot at crossing the Pacific. Yomiuri has also been one of the Japanese clubs most resistant to participating in the posting process. All in all, there are lots of reasons why Sugano may not get posted. There’s been a lot of buzz that the player himself is pushing for it, though, as he knows as well as anyone what that window looks like.

As for the repertoire, Sugano is a bit of a stereotype. Think of all the things we know about Japanese pitchers, and Sugano has basically all those qualities and tendencies. He pitches backward, often, relies heavily on non-fastball pitches, features a delivery that looks very stereotypically Japanese, and works toward the top of the zone with his fastball. It’s all the most traditional tropes we think of related to pitchers coming over from NPB. The remarkable thing about Sugano isn’t that he’s all that different from so many other Japanese pitchers; it’s the degree to which his stuff plays, and his mastery of said stuff, that makes him such a prize.

Sugano works mostly in the 89-93 range with his fastball, and can push it up to 95 when he needs a little extra. He typically attacks hitters toward the top of the zone, and his heater plays up when it stays up, with a very high spin rate that causes hitters to get under the ball, or miss it entirely. I’d put a 55 on it in the big leagues right now; it’s probably closer to a 60+ in the context of NPB, but even stateside I think it’s an above-average fastball.

The real meat of Sugano’s arsenal, though, comes in the form of a pair of breaking balls he features roughly half the time between the two. He throws both a slider and curveball, and what’s interesting about Sugano is his ability to essentially throw all the pitches in between the curve and slider as well. He can throw the slider harder or softer, larger or smaller, tilted or vertical, and do much the same thing with the curveball. He is an artist, and his medium is breaking balls. He’ll basically throw everything from a cutter through a slow curve in a given outing, and he can locate with precision throughout that spectrum.

Sugano also throws a changeup that might be called a forkball, but isn’t quite as distinctive as the splitter or fork thrown by some other Japanese pitchers. It’s a useful pitch, but doesn’t have the bite of, say, Kodai Senga’s splitter, which we’ll be seeing later in this column. Sugano uses the pitch more like American pitchers do, as a change of pace, primarily against opposite-handed hitters, rather than going to it as an out pitch very often.

In terms of style of pitching, Sugano isn’t all that different from Masahiro Tanaka, who received such a huge contract from the Yankees a couple years ago. Tanaka had more hype surrounding him, but Sugano, for my money, has every bit the mastery of his craft on his side. Tanaka pitches off his splitter, while Sugano pitches off his slider, but the effect is the same. The fastball becomes a pitch to be spotted and featured when the opponent cannot catch up, rather than the baseline off of which slower, crooked pitches are thrown to force empty or off-balance swings.

Sugano is a phenomenal performer, and if he were to be posted this offseason I think there would be a feeding frenzy. He doesn’t have quite the hype of some other Japanese pitchers coming over, from Darvish to Tanaka back to Daisuke Matsuzaka, but he very much belongs in those same sorts of conversations.

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Seibu Lions

6’0”, 190 lbs; B/T: Left/Left

DOB: 17 June, 1991

2018 Statistics: 23 GS, 163.2 IP, 3.08 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.5 BB/9

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Yusei Kikuchi, the lefty already confirmed to be heading into the posting system this offseason, is a very, very talented pitcher. The sum of his repertoire essentially makes him Francisco Liriano, but not the older Pirates version who had replaced his fastball with a sinker and traded power for consistent drop on his slider. No, I mean the young version of Liriano, the one who showed up in Minnesota at the height of the Johan Santana era and looked like an even more terrifying presence in the future of the Twins’ rotation.

Kikuchi is one of the more unusual things you’ll see in any year: a Japanese lefty power pitcher. We’re all used to the crafty/finesse left-hander, of course, but that’s even more typically stereotypical in Japan, where power lefties just don’t come around very often at all. The nature of Kikuchi’s stuff is remarkable, as were his 2017 results, when he posted a 1.97 ERA in almost 190 innings. He was less pyrotechnic this season, battling some slight shoulder soreness for much of the middle of the season, but he pitched through it and was still a very effective starter.

At his best, Kikuchi works with a four-seam fastball that can reach 97 and an absolutely devastating slider. Last year, he barely ever had to go away from that one-two punch, simply because he was so dominant even as a starter with just two pitches. This season, on the other hand, he incorporated both a bigger, slower curve and a solid-average changeup into the mix to help make up for a generally less sharp arsenal overall. In the long run, that could actually be a boon for Kikuchi’s career, as he has more weapons to go to now, rather than simply leaning entirely on pure stuff to blow hitters away.

He utilises a drop and drive delivery I really quite like, and the timing on his arm action is better now than it was earlier in his career, when he would plunge his pitching hand all the way down behind his leg at times and end up delaying his arm quite a bit. The arm circle in back is more compact now, and his timing on the whole is better. I’m not sure I would call it a low-risk delivery, but his leg drive is doing a lot of the work generating power, and he’s not terrible late now.

The bottom line with Kikuchi is this: you’re getting one of the most talented left-handed pitchers in the world, and maybe the most talented lefty not already in the major leagues. He has not had nearly the consistent, sustained success in his career that Sugano has, but has at least as high a ceiling, I believe, over the next 3-5 years. It’s also fair to question how Kikuchi would match up against a pitcher like Patrick Corbin, another slider-heavy lefty who will hit the open market this offseason. Corbin pushed his career to a new level this season by leaning ever more heavily on his breaking ball, and comes with the benefit of a five-win season in his immediate rearview mirror. On the other hand, while Kikuchi obviously has some concerns about his success translating, as is always the case with NPB players making the jump, he’s also two years younger, throws significantly harder, and doesn’t have a Tommy John surgery already in his history.

I could see preferring either player, honestly, and either one could represent a great investment in a club’s medium-term future. Even with the posting fee, I expect Kikuchi to be a little less expensive than Corbin, most likely.

via ace kuroda2:

Kodai Senga, RHP, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks

6’0”, 178 lbs; B/T: Left/Right

DOB: 30 January, 1993

2018 Statistics: 21 GS, 134 IP, 3.63 ERA, 10.7 K/9, 3.8 BB/9

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Of all three pitchers I’m covering here today, Senga is probably the most complicated matter. He did not have a particularly good 2018 season, and has never really shown the kind of consistent excellence one might expect from a pitcher as talented as he. He’s put up tremendous numbers at times, but also has much more of an injury history than either Kikuchi or Sugano, and has struggled to turn his stuff into consistent results at other times. He just completed his seventh season in NPB, despite being just 25 years old, which certainly makes him a little extra intriguing, but it’s unclear how likely it is he is posted.

Here’s what Senga has: perhaps the single greatest strikeout pitch of any of the three pitchers I’ve featured here today. Said pitch is a forkball, or a splitter if you prefer, and it is ungodly. He also has a solid-average fastball, with 93-94 mph velocity and a little extra hop that seems to make the pitch hard to catch up with, and a very good slider he’ll incorporate against right-handed hitters as well. It all adds up to a pitcher with very good strikeout punch, but more question marks regarding his long-term viability as a starter.

For my money, Senga’s best fit on an MLB club would be in a fireman role out of the bullpen, where he could work as something like a Chris Devenski type, capable of getting three to seven outs at a go, and leaning on his one killer offspeed pitch to dominate hitters in modest stints. Senga worked as a reliever earlier in his career, but has been exclusively a starter since 2016, so it’s possible he wouldn’t be interested in such a role, but to my eye he could be an ideal fit for the evolving landscape of MLB pitching staffs.

If I’m being honest, as much as I like Senga, he’s pretty clearly the third of this group of three here. Still, if he were to be posted I wouldn’t hesitate to make an aggressive run at him, with an eye toward tactical deployment that could turn him into a weapon equal to just about any reliever in the game.

via BlueBall:

Obviously, as of right now we only know one of these pitchers is coming over, and so extensive discussion of the others has to remain purely hypothetical. But in this trio, we have three potential impact pitchers in the big leagues, all of whom would cost the acquiring team cash only, with no draft pick attached, and no talent being shipped out in return. It has to be a concern how their NPB successes would translate to America, certainly, but at this point I think we have enough of a track record to believe that those successes are not going to simply evaporate when they step onto a big league field.

I think the Cardinals should be involved in the bidding for all three of these pitchers, if and when they do come over to MLB. Whether they will be involved or not is an open question, but if you’re looking for an avenue to add potentially high-end talent without high draft picks or dealing away excessive amounts of young talent for someone else’s 29 year old star, here is a way to do it.