2nd-best FA arm may be one you don't know

Righty won back-to-back Sawamura Awards in Japan in 2017, '18

December 8th, 2020

American baseball fans -- and executives -- glimpsed the dominance of Japanese star Tomoyuki Sugano at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, when he fanned six in six innings against Team USA at Dodger Stadium without allowing an earned run. 

Nearly four years later, the right-hander is on the verge of becoming a more permanent member of the North American baseball scene. 

Major League Baseball teams were informed Monday that Sugano, 31, will be posted by the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball as of Tuesday at 8 a.m. ET. 

The deadline to complete an agreement under the MLB-NPB posting system is Jan. 7 at 5 p.m. ET. If Sugano joins an MLB club, the Giants will receive a release fee equal to 20 percent of Sugano’s first $25 million in guaranteed salary; 17.5 percent of the next $25 million; and 15 percent of any amount beyond $50 million.

Sources say the San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are among the MLB teams with interest in Sugano, whose NPB credentials are comparable to those of Kenta Maeda and Masahiro Tanaka. Boston’s potential interest was documented recently by Sean McAdam of the Boston Sports Journal.

Sugano won the Sawamura Award as NPB’s top pitcher in 2017 and '18, and he went 14-2 with 131 strikeouts and a 1.97 ERA in 137 1/3 innings this year. In his eight-year NPB career, Sugano is 101-49 with a 2.32 ERA and 1,214 strikeouts in 1,360 innings.

One MLB scout said Monday that Sugano’s fastball has late action and typically ranges from 91-93 mph, topping out at 95. Sugano's slider is known as his best secondary offering, and he also throws a forkball and changeup that can be above-average pitches.

Frank Herrmann, a former Indians and Phillies pitcher who has spent the past four seasons in NPB, said Sugano’s control is “elite.” Some MLB observers describe Sugano as being in the tier of free-agent pitchers immediately below that of reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer.

Herrmann also pointed out that Sugano is accustomed to pitching on the biggest stages, as he has with the Japanese national team and the country’s most iconic franchise.

“He’s a crafty, smart, excellent pitcher with multiple plus-plus pitches,” said Zelous Wheeler, a former Yankees infielder who has played with and against Sugano in Japan. “He should translate very well to MLB. He’s hardworking and gets along well with his teammates, both Japanese and foreign players.”

The Yomiuri Giants had a longstanding policy of not posting players for MLB clubs. That changed last year with Shun Yamaguchi, who signed with the Blue Jays. Sugano has spent his entire professional career with the Giants, whose manager -- the legendary Tatsunori Hara -- is Sugano’s uncle.

Wheeler said he’s confident his teammate is up to the challenge of pitching in the Major Leagues. At the very least, Sugano already has refined one aspect of the MLB starting rotation ethos.

“You don’t want to see him on the golf course,” Wheeler said. “He’s very good.”