Tomoyuki Sugano, Japan’s top pitcher, could be headed to MLB

Tomoyuki Sugano, arguably the best pitcher in Japan, is viewed as more likely than not to be posted in the coming weeks and become available to major league teams.

Two members of the Nippon Ham Fighters, starter Kohei Arihara and outfielder Haruki Nishikawa, are even more likely to be posted.

The 31-year-old Sugano is one of Japan’s most decorated pitchers, winning the Central League MVP in 2014 and Sawamura Award (the Japanese version of the Cy Young award) in 2017 and 2018. He had a back injury in 2019 and did not pitch to his career norms, but this season he is 13-1 with a 2.02 ERA. His fastball registers just 90-92 mph regularly, but his excellence is built around his array of pitches and pinpoint control (he has averaged 1.7 walks per nine innings for his career).

In the 2017 World Baseball Classic semifinal, which Japan lost to the United States, 2-1, Saguno allowed one unearned run in six innings against a powerful lineup that included Christian Yelich, Andrew McCutchen, Eric Hosmer, Giancarlo Stanton and Buster Posey. Nolan Arenado struck out in all three at-bats vs. Saguno.

Two MLB scouts who have a history covering Saguno project him as a strong No. 3 type starter in the majors. Even in what is supposed to be a tight-fisted market, most clubs want to add starting pitching and a few such as the Blue Jays, Giants and White Sox are expected to be a little bolder financially than others.

MLB has pushed back by one week the period in which a player from Nippon Professional Baseball can be posted, to Nov. 8-Dec. 12. That acknowledges that the Japanese season was delayed at the outset by the COVID-19 pandemic and extended about a month longer than normal, with its version of the World Series scheduled for Nov. 21-29.

Tomoyuki Sugano
Tomoyuki SuganoGetty Images

A posted player has a month-long window to reach an agreement with an MLB team from the date of posting and his Japanese team receives a fee at a percentage of his contract if he signs with a major league team.

Due to the pandemic MLB teams could not send scouts to Japan to watch in-person potential candidates to leave for MLB, which is standard if a club is going to invest in a foreign player. Many organizations do have at least a part-time scout in Japan, video and long scouting dossiers on all the players.

Sugano could wait until after next year when money may not be as tight in MLB and he is a full-fledged international free agent and does not have to be posted. But he is in his 30s already and has long been believed to want to test himself in MLB. Plus, Japanese stars only top out in the $6 million to $7 million range.

Sugano’s Yomiuri Giants clinched a playoff spot on Friday, so he will play for a while. The Giants are the Yankees of Japan and historically do not post their players. But they did so with Shun Yamaguchi last offseason (he signed with the Blue Jays) because he had signed with the Giants as a free agent with the stipulation that he could leave.

Indications are the Giants would willingly post Sugano. In 2011, as one of the top amateur pitchers in Japan, Sugano said he wanted to play for his uncle, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, who still manages the team. But in the draft lottery, the Fighters also nominated the righty and gained his rights. Sugano refused to sign with the team, sat out a year and the following season the Giants were the lone team to nominate him for the draft and gained his rights. Because Sugano lost a year and, thus, a chance to be a free agent after the 2020 season, the Giants would not oppose him leaving.

The Fighters are not making the playoffs and have a history of posting players such as Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani.

Arihara, 28 is projected more as a bottom-of-the-rotation starter. He had his best season in 2019 (15-8, 2.46 ERA), but fell off this year (7-8, 3.40). Like Saguno, he does not overpower with a fastball and instead relies on a full repertoire and command.

Nishikawa, 28, projects more as a Rays-like maneuverable piece. He plays multiple positions, but has won three Japanese Gold Gloves in the outfield. He is a lefty swinger with minimal power, whose strong skills are getting on base (this year 81 walks to 79 strikeouts and a .419 on-base percentage) and speed (this is his seventh season with 30 or more steals).

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