The Blue Jays are looking for 2019+ pitching help, whether via MLB free agency or trade. But is there a third option?
The problem with acquiring pitching via trade is that you have to give to get. With limited high-value trade options on the major league roster, trading for high-upside pitching would likely mean dipping into the Jays’ prospect pool – which would not be the first choice of many writers (including this one).
Of course, pitchers can also be acquired via free agency. The positive is that they only cost money. But the negative is that the good ones can cost a lot of money. And many (most?) free agents are at the declining stage of their careers, which is an imperfect fit for a Jays team who will likely be rebuilding in 2019 (and possibly 2020)
But there is a third option.
In prior years, several pitchers from other leagues have made the jump to the MLB. Some have been highly successful – think Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish and most recently Shohei Ohtani. Of course, others have been less fortunate – remember Mac Suzuki and Kei Igawa? But an international signing could make sense for the 2019 Jays on multiple levels.
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First, because many of these players are still in their 20s, and so have multiple peak years left in their careers. So if they Jays *do* hit the jackpot, it would be a multi-season win. Second, it is not uncommon for players from other countries to take time to adjust to the North American game. This is an issue for a current contender. But the Jays are unlikely to contend in 2019, and so they have the luxury of allowing a new player to make mistakes and learn from them.
Of course, the wild card in some leagues is whether their existing teams would release them. In the Japanese leagues, for example, a player does not become an unrestricted free agent until he has completed 9 years of service, and MLB generally recognizes and respects existing Japanese contracts. But exceptions can be made – think Shohei Ohtani last year, who was posted by his Japanese team after only 5 years. Several of the players discussed below are still under team control – but are potentially postable. The posting decision will also be affected by the changes in the posting system that will come into effect this offseason – instead of a flat $20 million fee, the releasing team will (generally) get 15% of the player’s first contract. So if a Senga were to sign for (say) $60 million, the Hawks would only get $9 million.
There are arguably no Darvish-es or Ohtani’s in this year’s potential international free agent class. But there are some players with strong backgrounds and good upside. As for example …
Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Saitama Seibu Lions (Japan) – age 27
Kikuchi’s 2012-2016 career with Seibu was difficult to assess. He holds the NPB (Japanese professional league) record for a left-handed pitcher with a 98 mph fastball, and he also has a plus slider and decent curve. However, his command was problematic, averaging around 4 walks per nine innings and making it difficult for him to go deep into games.
He had a breakout season in 2017, with career bests in innings pitched (187 – he had injury issues earlier in his career), K/9 (10.4) and K/BB (4.43, almost double his career average). Had he been posted at the end of that year, he might have commanded a crazy-high price. But his 2018, while still good, did not maintain his 2017 levels. His ERA “ballooned” <cough> from 1.97 to a below-career-average 3.08, his K/9 dropped to a near-career-average 8.4 and his innings pitched dropped to 163 as he once again experienced injury issues. But his 2018 injury might have a silver lining. As one player put it
"“When we have faced him, we have hit him pretty well, and that’s with a heavy left-handed lineup,” Herrmann told MLB.com. “The [velocity] and sharpness of the slider seems to be down from last year. The one positive I’ve seen from him is that is he’s becoming more than a [two-pitch] guy, which he predominantly was last season. He will now flip in a curveball early in the count and uses his changeup to guys that [are] on his fastball. Last year, there was never a need to get away from the [fastball/slider] combo [Frank Hermann]"
Kikuchi has said that he wanted to pitch in the MLB as early as 2019. Some attribute his (relatively) poor 2018 to his shoulder woes and hope that his performance in 2019 will return to 2017 levels with good health. Still, the combination of his history of injury and his Japanese-style workload (like many Japanese pitchers, he has frequently made more than 120 pitches in a game). might scare off suitors – at least those suitors with foolishly deep pockets – though it has been speculated that Kikuchi would garner a contract in the $100 million range, but a healthy left-hander with a high-90s fastball could look very good in a Jays uniform in 2019 and beyond. And (at least in theory!) Toronto has a lot to offer to a young man fresh from Japan, and the Jays might well have a bit of extra cash for gambling purposes this offseason.
Takahiro Norimoto, RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles (Japan) – age 27
Norimoto is like Kikuchi in many ways. Both are 27 years old, and both have 98 mph fastballs and impressive strikeout totals (in fact, in 2017 Norimoto led the Pacific League with 222 strikeouts– 5 more than Kikuchi). Like Kikuchi, Norimoto has expressed an interest in coming to the MLB someday. His current contract expires at the end of the 2019 year, and he does not have the requisite 9 years of service, so it is not clear whether the Eagles would post him this offseason. But they might consider doing so if they anticipate losing him anyway after next season.
One knock against Norimoto is that he is small by MLB standards, standing only 5’10” and weighing 180 lbs. Teams are sometimes cautious about shorter pitchers, as their pitches come in on flatter (and thus easier to pick up) plane. But Norimoto’s high velocity, combined with good movement, should minimize that concern.
Kodai Senga, RHP, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (Japan) – age 25
Like Kikuchi and Norimoto, Senga has expressed a desire to pitch in MLB one day. He would seem to be a good candidate, with a fastball that regularly touches 96-97 and strong NPB career stats (an ERA of 2.79, K/9 of 10.2 and BB/9 of 3.3). However, Senga recently negotiated a contract extension with the Hawks (who have never posted a player) so, like Norimoto, it is not clear that he would be available. But if he were, a 25-year-old with 7 years of professional baseball experience could be a good fit for a Toronto team looking beyond 2019.
Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP, Yomiuri Giants (Japan) – age 30
Sugano is a beast. Over the last three years, he has averaged 185 innings, an ERA under 2, a WHIP under 1 and a K/BB ratio just under 6. He has been described as perhaps the best pitcher in the Japanese Central League, and he has said that he would like to pitch in the majors one day. His club, the Giants, do not have a history of posting players, and could, in theory, hold on to Sugano for another two seasons. But given his age, it is possible that they will look to post him before he becomes a free agent in 2021
The bottom line
The Jays have put considerable effort into trades, domestic and international drafts, and have made some good free agent pickups. The one area where they have been tentative is the signing of mlb-ready international players. Perhaps, with with a bit of salary space and the luxury of time, now is the right time to look deeper into that market?