NPB players who could be in MLB in '21

November 23rd, 2020

Major League Baseball’s offseason is underway, with qualifying offer decisions due Wednesday and the Francisco Lindor trade market taking shape.

Player transfers from Nippon Professional Baseball are open, as well, with Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano the most prominent candidate to move to MLB for the 2021 season.

The posting window for NPB players began Sunday -- one week later than usual, due to schedule changes related to COVID-19 -- and continues until Dec. 12. If NPB clubs make players available to MLB teams during that time, a 30-day negotiating period follows in each instance.

One source said no NPB team had issued a posting notice as of Monday morning. That will change in the days and weeks ahead. The modified, 120-game regular season won’t end for every NPB club until Saturday, so multiple teams will wait until later in the month to make official announcements.

The Japan Series begins Nov. 21, with Game 7 scheduled for Nov. 29. Sugano’s Giants already have secured a berth in the Japan Series, and the right-hander is expected to meet with team management prior to the series regarding his future.

Given the complexity of signing an international star during a pandemic, clubs who have courted Japanese stars successfully in the past -- such as the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, and Rangers -- may have an advantage with Sugano.

Sugano, 31, won the Sawamura Award as NPB’s top pitcher in 2017 and 2018. His achievements in Japan are comparable to those of Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda at the time they left for the U.S. Maeda, 32, is a finalist for this year’s American League Cy Young Award.

The Giants had a longstanding policy of not posting players for MLB clubs. That changed last year with Shun Yamaguchi, a right-handed pitcher who signed with the Blue Jays. It will be more difficult for the Giants to part with Sugano, who has spent his entire career with the club; the Giants’ legendary manager, Tatsunori Hara, is Sugano’s uncle.

In addition to acceding to Sugano’s wishes to pitch against MLB competition, the Giants have a business interest in allowing him to leave: They would receive a release fee equal to 20 percent of his first $25 million in guaranteed salary, 17.5 percent of the next $25 million and 15 percent of any amount beyond $50 million.

Economic uncertainty in the U.S. due to the COVID-19 pandemic could prompt some Japanese players to delay moves to MLB for one more season. Mainstays on the Japanese national team have further incentive to wait, in order to represent the host nation at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games, which run from July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021. (NPB’s 2021 schedule includes an Olympic break; MLB’s does not.)

By contrast, asking to be posted now has appeal for players who wish to sign with MLB clubs before the expiration of baseball’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement on Dec. 1, 2021.

While many MLB talent evaluators are confident that Sugano will be posted this offseason, there was less consensus surrounding the frontrunner for this year’s Sawamura Award, Chunichi Dragons ace starting pitcher Yudai Ohno, who could have been a domestic free agent this offseason. Sure enough, the 32-year-old Ohno has agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Dragons, according to a source, thus removing the possibility that he’ll be posted. The left-hander had a 1.82 ERA this season, while striking out roughly one batter per inning.

The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters are posting right-handed starter Kohei Arihara, according to a source confirming a Nikkan Sports report. Arihara, 28, is younger and a less consistent performer than Sugano or Ohno, but he is regarded as possessing an MLB-caliber repertoire.

Yasuaki Yamasaki (Yokohama DeNA BayStars) and Hirokazu Sawamura (Chiba Lotte Marines) are two right-handed relief pitchers to follow in the days ahead, although there’s doubt as to whether either will pitch in MLB next year.

Yamasaki, star closer of the Japanese national team at the 2019 WBSC Premier12, has pitched inconsistently in 2020 and suffered a late-season oblique injury. As such, the timing isn’t ideal for the BayStars to post him. Sawamura, 32, has enough service time to be an international free agent and therefore is not subject to the posting system; MLB teams could be intrigued by his fastball/splitter combo.

Former Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers right-hander Spencer Patton is a free agent, after four seasons as a reliever with the BayStars. He’s able to consider clubs in Japan and MLB, following a year in which he posted a 4.92 ERA while striking out more than one batter per inning. Robert Suárez, the Venezuelan-born closer of the Hanshin Tigers, also is eligible for international free agency.

This winter’s class of posting candidates includes more pitchers than position players, as indications are that Seiya Suzuki, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp’s superstar outfielder, will wait at least one more year before moving to MLB.

Tetsuto Yamada, the power-hitting second baseman of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, is regarded by MLB talent evaluators as the top Japanese position player who could be posted this winter. While questions exist about Yamada’s defensive range, he averaged 33 home runs per season from 2014 through 2019, before the 28-year-old saw a drop in his production in 2020.

Meanwhile, the status of Oscar Colás -- a fascination within international baseball circles -- remains unresolved. Colás, a talented outfielder/pitcher, defected from Cuba after the Cuban government permitted him to play for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on a provisional basis.

The Hawks would need to grant their permission for Colás to be posted or otherwise declared a free agent. Colás, 22, hasn’t played for the Hawks since 2019. For the posting process to begin, the Hawks must submit medical information for MLB clubs to review. That would be difficult to obtain under the circumstances, as his whereabouts are unknown.