LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 21: Tomoyuki Sugano #11 of the Japan pitches in the first inning against team United States during Game 2 of the Championship Round of the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium on March 21, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Since the late 1990s, the New York Yankees have been intrigued by the Japenese market. They may target another foreign player next winter.

Thomas Hall

Throughout the last three decades, the New York Yankees have featured many different players who started their careers in Japan. This includes Hideki Irabu, who signed a four-year $12.8 million contract in 1997, and Hideki Matsui, who spent seven spectacular seasons with the Bombers.

Most recently, Masahiro Tanaka made the trip over to North America when he signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yanks prior to the 2014 campaign. While his tenure in New York has been successful, there’s a chance the 31-year-old hurler might not re-sign with the team after this season.

Along with Tanaka, both James Paxton and J.A. Happ could also depart from the Yankees through free agency after 2020. If all three pitchers leave, then New York will be forced to restructure its rotation next winter.

With the Yankees searching for arms, they could once again look to Japan to fill at least one of the vacant spots within the staff.

Currently, Tomoyuki Sugano and Kodai Senga are considered the best pitchers in Japan. Both could make the transition over to Major League Baseball in 2021.

But, there’s no guarantee either pitcher within the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization will be available after this season. Despite their interest to play in North America, both players are under contract and their respective teams can keep them in Japan until they gain nine years of service time.

At that rate, Sugano wouldn’t be able to make his MLB debut until the 2022 campaign. But, there’s a slight chance that he could be posted by the Yomiuri Giants after this season, whenever it begins.

Historically, the Giants have been largely against MLB’s posting system. They’ve rarely ever allowed a player to leave for North America while still under contract. With that said, their team agreed to post Shun Yamaguchi during this past offseason. This could open the door for Sugano to leave Japan next winter.

During a conference call last fall, team president Tsukasa Imamura discussed how the Giants will determine when they’ll allow another player to void their contract and leave for MLB.

“With each individual player, we’ll decide by monitoring the trends,” he said, per Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times.

If Sugano becomes available next offseason, the Yankees should seriously consider bidding for his services. He will indeed be entering his age-31 season in 2021. But, the right-hander still possesses the ability to transfer his skills to the major-league level.

From 2014-18, the Giants were provided with stellar results from the veteran hurler. During that span, Sugano produced a 1.99 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 0.57 HR/9, 22.5% strikeout rate, along with a 4.8% walk rate over his 910.1 innings pitched.

Despite these impressive metrics, Sugano struggled to replicate those results last season. Through 136.1 innings, the 6-foot-1 pitcher recorded a 3.89 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 1.3 HR/9, 20.8% strikeout rate, and 5.5% walk rate.

While these numbers are certainly concerning, the hip soreness that forced Sugano to miss nearly a month likely caused them. Furthermore, the two-time Sawamura Award winner (Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award) dealt with this injury throughout the remainder of the 2019 campaign.

Prior to last season, the intriguing hurler featured a low-90s fastball that topped out at 95 MPH from 2014-18. As a result of his hip soreness, the velocity on his heater maxed out at just 94 MPH last season.

For a pitcher who doesn’t throw in the high-90s, a decrease in velocity definitely isn’t ideal. But, Sugano should be able to regain the speed on his fastball if he’s able to stay healthy this season.

Along with his heater, the soft-throwing righty has also utilized a mid-80s slider, a high-70s curveball, and he’s occasionally mixed in a low-80s changeup throughout his career. The latter pitch has also been considered a forkball.

For those who can’t wait for the 2020 season to begin, here are some of Sugano’s highlights from the 2018 campaign:

Hopefully, Sugano will be able to recapture his dominant form if and when baseball returns to Japan later this year. If successful, the chances of the Giants posting the right-hander after this season will likely increase.

If signed by the Yankees, the Japanese-born pitcher would likely be inserted into the middle of their rotation. Overall, he’d be a good change of pace for their hard-throwing pitching staff.

For the Giants, the clock is ticking on Sugano’s value. They’d be foolish to prevent him from reaching North America until 2022. Since he’ll be entering his age-30 season this year, MLB teams will lose interest in him if he’s unable to maintain his health and the velocity on his fastball.

While that’s also a risk for the Yankees, Sugano would still be a tremendous benefit to the team. All in all, New York could have another Japanese pitcher to fill Tanaka’s spot in 2021 if Masahiro departs after this season.