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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Tomoyuki Sugano

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The top Japanese pitcher is coming to America. Might the Yankees be interested?

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

Over the past decade, the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) posting decisions have been some of the most widely-anticipated days in the MLB offseason. Stars like Yu Darvish, Shohei Ohtani and Masahiro Tanaka have all come to Major League Baseball and thrived after successful careers in Japan. The Yankees had differing levels of interest in each of these players, and of course gave Tanaka a seven-year contract that he just finished.

Wouldn't you know, the Yankees are in the market for starting pitching help again, and the best pitcher in Japan is coming to America. 31-year-old Tomoyuki Sugano is reportedly set to be posted from the Yomiuri Giants, with the intent to join an MLB team. With the Yankees’ rotation currently consisting of Gerrit Cole and a collection of question marks, the team should at least do their homework on Sugano, who may be a potential impact starter in a market not exactly full of them.

Some die-hard American fans may already be familiar with Sugano, having seen him in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He pitched the semifinal matchup for Japan versus the United States, a game that his team lost but to no fault of Sugano. He pitched six innings of one-run ball (and that run was unearned) while striking out six and only allowing three hits against a stellar US lineup.

The clip below (which features highlights from the whole game) includes Sugano striking out Christian Yelich, Nolan Arenado and Andrew McCutchen, as well as future Yankee Giancarlo Stanton:

Team USA manager Jim Leyland heaped praise on Sugano after the game: “I can’t tell you, for me, tonight, how impressed I was with their pitcher,” Leyland said. “I thought he was really good. Located the ball on the outside corners, fastball. Threw 3-0 sliders. That’s pretty impressive.” Leyland later referred to Sugano as “a big league pitcher.”

After getting his name on the radar of American scouts, Sugano continued his dominance in Japan. He won the Sawamura Award (essentially the Cy Young Award of NPB) in 2017 and 2018. After a more pedestrian 2019, Sugano bounced back with an excellent 2020 season. He went 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 5.24 K/BB ratio, and three complete game shutouts in a COVID-shortened season.

Sugano’s stuff is good, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. His fastball sits 90-93 mph, and he also throws a slider, curveball and cutter. In Japan, he only once had a season where he averaged over a strikeout per inning, and he did give up an average of 7.6 hits per nine innings. What makes him stand out is his top-notch command. Sugano is a control artist who is stingy with the free passes, and has an innate ability to keep the ball in the ballpark (career 0.6 HR/9). Having reached his 30s, his stuff probably won’t improve, but a surgical command has helped similar pitchers who came over from NPB without a 95-mph heater.

Statistically, Sugano profiles quite similarly to Tanaka. In Japan from ages 23-30, Sugano went 101-50 with a 2.34 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, and averaged 8.0 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, and 0.6 HR/9. Likewise, from ages 18-24 in Japan, Tanaka went 99-35 with a 2.29 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP, and averaged 8.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, and 0.5 HR/9. That Sugano was able to put up markedly similar numbers to Tanaka at an older age indicates that he carries the same kind of ace reputation overseas. While that doesn’t mean the same success will carry over to America, it means that the hype around him is real.

The starting pitching market this offseason has a lot of names, but not a ton of high-quality options. Sugano might be an underrated target that can provide mid-level production, and according to Jon Morosi, the Yankees are already being linked to Sugano, along with the Padres and Giants. The Yankees have three holes to fill in the rotation, from the departures of Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton. They could still bring Tanaka back, but the other two are likely goners. Could the team look at Sugano to fill the void?

It’s merely speculation on what Sugano’s contract might look like, but Kuroda got three years and $35 million at age-33 in 2007, Maeda got eight years and $25 million at age-28 in 2016, and Yusei Kikuchi got three years and $43 million at age 28 in 2019. Could Sugano be looking at a three-year, $40 million deal? That’s a $13.3 million AAV, which is comparable to what Tanner Roark, Drew Smyly and Carlos Carrasco make. Remember, the team he signs with must also pay roughly 20 percent to Sugano’s old NPB team as a posting fee, which is an added expense that doesn’t count against the Competitive Balance Tax.

How the Yankees will fill their rotation is anyone’s guess, but particularly if they let Tanaka walk, Sugano could be worth taking a flyer on. He had much better Japanese league stats than MLB flops like Kikuchi or Kei Igawa, and has the precision and big-game ability to succeed in the majors. He could become a secret weapon for the Yankees in 2021 and beyond.