A free agent class short on impact pitching is about to add a very intriguing arm. The Yomiuri Giants in Japan will post ace right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano for MLB teams in the coming days, reports the Japan Times. Yomiuri previously agreed to post Sugano this offseason should he request it, and after some deliberation, Sugano has decided to challenge himself in MLB.
Sugano will be the fourth Asian player posted for MLB teams this offseason, joining Japanese righty Kohei Arihara, Japanese outfielder Haruki Nishikawa, and Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim. but Sugano is the most accomplished player making the jump to MLB.
Sugano, 31, has been the most consistently excellent starting pitcher in Japan's Nippon Profession Baseball since Masahiro Tanaka left for MLB in 2014. He is a two-time Sawamura Award winner (Japan's Cy Young equivalent) and a former league MVP, and he has a postseason no-hitter to his credit. Here are his last three seasons:
The 2020 NPB season was shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic, hence the lack of innings this year. In 2019, Sugano missed time with back and hip discomfort, leading to the worst season of his career. He was healthy this year though and was his typically excellent self. For his career, Sugano owns a 2.32 ERA and a 4.58 K/BB ratio in over 1,300 innings.
The free agent class lacks high-end starting pitchers beyond Trevor Bauer -- -- and teams unwilling to meet Bauer's asking price could target Sugano despite his lack of MLB track record. He has been as good as it gets in the highest league outside MLB, and he shouldn't require a significant contract commitment.
Here is everything you need to know about Sugano in advance of his posting.
How good is he, exactly?
Quite good, obviously, though there will be questions about his effectiveness in MLB until he proves he can do it. That's just the way it is. For what it's worth, Joel Sherman of the New York Post spoke to two talent evaluators who project Sugano as a "strong No. 3 type starter in the majors," and hey, strong No. 3 starters are valuable. Those guys get $10 million a year in free agency all the time.
Back in 2017, Sugano held a high-powered Team USA offense to one run in six innings in their World Baseball Classic matchup at Dodger Stadium. Team USA manager Jim Leyland was impressed.
"Tonight, the starting pitcher for Japan, he's a big league pitcher. He's good. I mean, I was really impressed with him," Leyland told MLB.com's Joe Trezza after the game. "I can't tell you, for me, tonight, how impressed I was with their pitcher. I mean, I thought he was really good. Located on the ball on the outside corners, fastball. Threw 3-0 sliders. That's pretty impressive."
Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times provided an updated scouting report on Sugano over at Baseball America earlier this month. Here's a snippet of his write-up:
(His) slider is perhaps the best in Japan and he can control it to both sides of the plate. It's a devastating offering when he buries it inside against lefthanded hitters. Sugano's velocity was slightly up in 2020 and he also induced more swinging strikes. He upped his splitter usage and also threw a cutter, curveball and shuuto. His control was as strong as ever.
Coskrey adds Sugano has excelled in big games and is "ready for the majors now from a makeup standpoint." These days Sugano works with a low-to-mid-90s four-seamer fastball after sitting in the upper-80s and low-90s with a sinking two-seamer earlier in his career. He's emphasized the slider over the curveball in recent years. (A "shuuto" is essentially two-seamer.)
Sugano altered his delivery in 2020 -- that's notable because rarely do successful veteran starters change their delivery this late into their career -- and he now rotates his torso before bringing his leg up to get into his delivery. He essentially starts his delivery with his upper half and his lower half has to catch up. His old delivery was more traditional. Here's Sugano in action:
Veteran NPB scribe Jim Allen says Sugano's "calling card is plus command" and adds "the consensus among scouts is that he will slot somewhere in between a No. 2 and 4, but would be a plus to any major-league team's rotation." The Yomiuri Giants are the Yankees of Japan given their history and popularity, so Sugano has played in a pressure market his entire career.
To use a cliché, Sugano is a pitcher rather than a thrower, and although he is not viewed as a no-doubt ace the way Yu Darvish was when he was posted a decade ago, he is expected to be a quality major league starter. Someone who can pitch in a contender's rotation. The free agent market is short on those pitchers and Sugano will be in high demand because of it.
How does the posting process work?
Under the old posting system, teams would submit blind bids and the high bidder won the player's negotiating rights. That changed a few years ago. Players are now free to negotiate with any and all MLB teams and pick their destination. The team that signs the player then pays his former team a "release fee." Here is the release fee structure:
- $25 million contract or less: 20 percent of contract value
- $25 million to $50 million contract: $5 million plus 17.5 percent of amount over $25 million
- $50 million contract or more: $9.375 million plus 15% of amount over $50 million
The release fee is not included in the contract. It's a separate expense. So, for example, if Sugano signs a $40 million contract, he gets the $40 million and his former team, the Yomiuri Giants, get a $7.625 million release fee ($5M plus $2.625 million that is 17.5 percent of the $15 million over $25 million threshold). His new MLB team would be on the hook for $47.625 million total.
Players posted from Japan (or Korea) will typically visit the United States to meet with teams face-to-face and listen to their sales pitch before making their decision. Sugano's process figures to be quite different because of the ongoing pandemic, however. He may be limited to virtual meetings, or perhaps have to whittle his list down early in the process to limit in-person meetings.
It's important to note Sugano has not yet been officially posted. That will happen soon. Yomiuri has until Dec. 12 to post Sugano, and once that happens, he will have a 30-day window to negotiate and sign with an MLB team. The entire process (negotiations, physical, pen to paper, etc.) must be complete within the 30-day window.
What could his contract look like?
Sugano made about $6 million as the highest-paid player in Japan in 2020. He'll make much more than that next year. The largest contract an MLB team has ever given to a posted Japanese player is, by far, is the seven-year, $155 million deal the Yankees gave Tanaka back in the day. Tanaka signed that contract at 25. Sugano is 31 and won't come close to that sort of deal.
Two years ago the Mariners gave Yusei Kikuchi a complicated four-year contract worth $56 million, which is a more appropriate benchmark for Sugano. Kikuchi signed that deal at 27, so he was several years younger than Sugano, but he also wasn't as accomplished in Japan. Four years and $14 million per year is not unreasonable for a mid-rotation starter.
Back in 2008, the Dodgers signed Hiroki Kuroda to a three-year contract worth $35.3 million. He was 33 at the time and a true free agent who did not have to go through the posting process (Sugano doesn't have enough service time to qualify for international free agency). That's $11.8 million per year. Adjust upward for inflation and you get something close to Kikuchi's deal.
Sugano's age and pandemic-related payroll trimming will limit his contract upside. Still, three years is a reasonable request, and I think he'll wind up with more than $10 million a year. Let's call three years and $30 million Sugano's contract floor. That's what the Rangers gave Lance Lynn two years ago. I reckon more than a few MLB teams will be in the mix at that price.
Which teams could be interested?
MLB teams of course scout Japan (some more than others), so Sugano is a known quantity. The pandemic made scouting a challenge this year but teams know who he is and have evaluated him to some degree. No MLB club has to hit up Google to begin research when Sugano is officially posted.
It is a little early in the game and there have been no rumors connecting Sugano to specific MLB teams yet. Those will come soon. For now, here are eight MLB teams that could have interest in Sugano once he is posted. To be clear, this is my speculation.
- Angels: The Halos badly need pitching and Sugano would be able to partner with countrymate Shohei Ohtani. Bonus points for being a West Coast team with relatively easy travel back to Japan.
- Blue Jays: The Blue Jays signed Shun Yamaguchi, Sugano's former teammate with the Yomiuri Giants, last offseason, and they could use more pitching behind Hyun-Jin Ryu.
- Giants: San Francisco is seeking rotation help this winter and they have a ton of money coming off the books next offseason. Sugano could be a building block moving forward.
- Mariners: No MLB team has pursued Japanese players as aggressively as Seattle. Sugano could follow in the footsteps of Ichiro Suzuki, Kenji Johjima, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kikuchi, and others.
- Mets: Big market team with money to spend? The Mets are an obvious fit for Sugano, especially since they need rotation help behind the great Jacob deGrom.
- Padres: The Padres always seem to be in the mix for Japanese players, and with their championship window opening, the Mike Clevinger injury could push them toward Sugano.
- White Sox: The White Sox made the jump from rebuilder to contender this past season and adding another high-end starter to Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel would make them very formidable.
- Yankees: There's a clear need for pitching in New York and the Yankees have a long history with Japanese stars, including Tanaka and Hideki Matsui, a former Yomiuri Giant himself.
Other possible suitors include the Athletics, Phillies, Rangers, and Nationals. Heck, you can see just about any team pursuing Sugano. Rotation help is always in demand. At age 31, it stands to reason Sugano will look to join a contender. It's hard to think he'll be willing to transition to a new culture only to sit through a rebuild the next few years, during whatever's left of his prime.