The Yankees rotation has carried a rather underwhelming lineup the last couple of seasons, balancing the flashes of sky-high ceiling Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes with depth performances from guys like Jameson Taillon. The always-alluring potential of Luis Severino adds to the upside of the rotation, but with Taillon hitting free agency and question marks about full-season use of depth guys, the Yankees could stand to add one more arm.
If they go that route, NPB frontliner Kodai Senga probably gives the best combination of value and performance that’s available this winter. He’s coming off a 1.94 ERA season with a strong 28 percent strikeout rate, and perhaps most impressively touching 102 mph with his fastball in his age-29 season. In a league where the top pitchers will sit between 170-180 innings per season, Senga has only reached that level twice in 11 NPB seasons, but on a per-inning basis his performance raises eyebrows.
As does his signature pitch:
Kodai Senga, "Ghost Fork" (and Grip). pic.twitter.com/c5Rwp64QeD— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 2, 2021
The Yankees have had success with a Japanese starting pitcher who boasted a signature splitting pitch, and Senga’s ghost fork is perhaps a step up even from Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter.
However, there are concerns. His fastball doesn’t really play up in the zone for how hard he throws, meaning he’s more reliant on using it on an east-west plane along the edges of the strike zone. Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs gave a Nathan Eovaldi comp: the fastball can work, and the primary breaking pitch is great, but there’s also probably going to be starts where Senga loses the zone entirely and MLB hitters will wait for their pitch to crush.
If we run with the Eovaldi comparison, well, Nate’s thrown 340 innings between his age 30-32 seasons before getting hurt this season, with a 3.79 ERA and 3.48 FIP. I think players like this will almost always see more “real” runs allowed because of those starts where they lose feel for a couple of innings, but there’s a fair amount of value in that kind of performance if you can get over 160 or so innings — Eovaldi’s been worth 3.8 fWAR/170IP, and I think that’s probably close to what you get with Senga.
Senga just doesn’t have the raw, “Mother of God” kind of performance that Jacob deGrom offers, or the Cy Young finalist stuff that Carlos Rodón offers, but he’s also going to cost close to $150 million less than either of those guys. You’re not paying Kodai Senga to be the best pitcher in baseball, rather you’re paying him to be the best number three in baseball, and take some of the topside risk off of the performance of someone like Luis Severino. That’s going to cost you somewhere between $16-20 million a year, probably for four years or so.
There’s a lot to like in Senga’s profile, and I think he offers more upside than a guy like Taillon. That’s not to say there’s not some real risk there — outside of his two primary pitches, there’s going to be some control and stuff concerns, and the additional workload of a 162 game season may wear him down more than we think right now. Those risks are priced into the bid, though, and you could do a lot worse than taking a chance on Senga, especially since as an international free agent, there’s no 20 percent posting fee attached.