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On Rōki Sasaki and long-term planning

The Monster of the Reiwa Era will be posted in the next couple of seasons, so how can the Yankees be ready?

World Baseball Classic Semifinals: Mexico v Japan Photo by Jasen Vinlove/Miami Marlins/Getty Images

Let’s fast forward a year. All the confetti’s been swept up from the Canyon of Heroes, and the Yankees are grappling with how to re-sign Juan Soto after the club’s corner outfielders both finished in the top five of AL MVP voting. Meanwhile, the man with arguably the best pure stuff on planet Earth, and inarguably the best nickname, opts out of a deal with Chiba Lotte and turns his eye towards Major League Baseball.

I’ve been fascinated by Rōki Sasaki for a hair over two years now. He’s just 22 years old, and was touching 101 in high school. The Chiba Lotte Marines carefully managed the prodigy’s development, holding him out of the top-flight roster for almost two full seasons to protect against overuse. Once he was fully unleashed on the NPB, well...

Sasaki threw a perfect game on April 10, 2022, the first in Japan in almost 18 years. It truly was about as perfect as you can get, as he struck out 19 Buffaloes hitters himself. One week later he threw eight perfect innings against the Nippon-Ham Fighters, taken out of the game after eight to protect his long-term health.

In 2023, Sasaki took another step forward, with a 1.78 ERA and 135 strikeouts in just 91 innings, leaving him with 283 innings of top-level experience across parts of three seasons. He requested to be posted last week, mostly seen as a formality given both the remaining years Chiba Lotte has Sasaki under control and the mere six-day turnaround before today’s posting deadline.

There’s been reporting that Sasaki has the same option in his contract that Shohei Ohtani did during his NPB days; the ability to force himself to be posted at the end of any Japanese season. Similar to Ohtani, should Rōki be posted next season, or any time before accruing six years of NPB service, he’d be counted as an international free agent and subject to corresponding IFA limits — Shohei received just a $2.3 million signing bonus when he came over.

This introduces some complexity into his posting process. Since the amount of money Sasaki could earn off the bat is limited, it increases the number of potential bidders. At press time, Yoshinobu Yamamoto is negotiating with two primary teams, the Yankees and the Dodgers, since most teams just can’t play in the ten year, $250-odd million pool that he’ll command. Just about every team could afford a $2.5 million signing bonus for a talent like Sasaki, so the pitch has to be about more than dollars.

There’s also challenges around the Marines’ incentives to post a pitcher like Sasaki. Given that IFA constraint on the MLB contract, the posting fee — a percentage of the big-league contract value — will be lower than the fee Orix will receive for Yamamoto’s departure. Even in the case of Ohtani, who made no secret of his desire to compete at the MLB level, Nippon-Ham didn’t post him until they had one year left of control.

This does create some opportunity for the Yankees, given they have at least a full year to prepare for The Monster of the Reiwa Era to be open for bidding. In hindsight, it sure appears that Ohtani was never all that interested in coming to the East Coast, and indeed the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres have all been more closely linked to Rōki than any other teams. Without simply being able to write the biggest cheque, the pitch to Sasaki has to be more comprehensive.

So, what does Sasaki want?

Ohtani, as singular an athlete as we’ve ever seen, really wanted to play with the Angels, and play with Mike Trout, and the Angels were most willing to let him do Shohei Ohtani Things. Sure there were other teams nominally in the bidding, but like his recent free agency case, it sure feels like Ohtani has and had a specific destination in place and molded everything else around that.

If that’s the approach Rōki wants to take, there’s not much the Yankees can do. Maybe he really really appreciates Texas BBQ, and Houston will duke it out with the Rangers for his services. Should he be more openminded, more interested in playing for a perennial competitor, there’s a more direct path for the Yankee pitch.

If Sasaki wants to play for a powerhouse, something like retaining Soto sends that signal, and if those kind of moves actually do increase the likelihood of Sasaki coming to the Bronx, you can in some ways discount the cost of that contract given the expected surplus value of a pitcher that talented on such a cheap deal.

We’re a year out from a very real conversation about my favorite hurler coming stateside. By the time he’s 24, Rōki Sasaki could very well be the best pitcher in the world. The Yankees need to be ready, but they’ve got the time to plan it out properly.