Anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to the Red Sox knows that the number one need on this roster is starting pitching. Yes, they have some other holes to fill, but it is the rotation that needs the most help with whatever kind of reinforcements they can get. Obviously, the more talented the better, but they just need bodies too. Unfortunately for them, this is not exactly a great year to be a starter-needy team, at least in terms of free agency. Trevor Bauer is at the top of the class, and there are reasons to be wary of him both on the mound and off of it. And then beyond that, Charlie Morton was probably number two, but he’s both at the end of his career and off the board at this point. Currently, the number two free agent with major-league experience is probably Masahiro Tanaka. If you want to put Corey Kluber or James Paxton in that spot, fine. The point doesn’t change with whatever name you want to put there, and in fact it probably only gets stronger.
The astute observers will notice the phrase “with major-league experience,” though. That is because I think you can pretty easily slide NPB star Tomoyuki Sugano into that two spot, and if you really want to one could probably make a not-terrible argument for him to be at the top of the list. I won’t go there, though. Instead, I just want to talk about him as a very good starting pitcher who is available to teams right now, regardless of where you want to slide him into the current free agent rankings.
Sugano is, to put it simply, one of the best pitchers in recent NPB memory who has dominated that league for basically his entire career. The righty did take a little bit of a step back in 2019 that gave some pause, but he bounced back in a major way this past season, finishing 2020 with a 1.97 ERA over 20 starts. Over the course of his eight-year career, he has pitched to a 2.34 ERA and has won the Sawamura Award, given to NPB’s best pitcher, twice in his career. He’s also been able to show off some in front of American audiences with a phenomenal performance against Team USA at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. There, he tossed six innings of one-run baseball with six strikeouts.
So the 31-year-old — Sugano will be 31 for the entire 2021 regular season — has ace pedigree in the second best professional league in baseball, but how do scouts see him translating to the majors? It seems that the consensus is that he can be a solid number three in a big-league rotation, which is a very valuable player. Those kinds of pitchers get eight figures per year on an annual basis on the free agent market.
While he doesn’t come equipped with a huge fastball, he also isn’t a soft-tosser and has added a bit of velocity in recent years. He sits in the low-to-mid 90s and gets up to 95 with the heat if he needs to. He also has a phenomenal slider along with a splitter, a curveball and a changeup. And to go with the solid stuff, Sugano has shown incredible control in his career in Japan, regularly walking fewer than two batters per nine with a career rate of 1.8 walks per nine. Here’s a snippet of what Jason Coskrey said over at Baseball America earlier this month:
“Sugano is a big-game pitcher with supreme control and incredible command of his pitches. He’s ready for the majors now from a makeup standpoint.”
So, all in all that is a very appealing group of attributes for starting pitching, particularly in a market that is relatively weak in the area. And even if you don’t want to put him over Bauer — if I’m being honest I probably wouldn’t either, but I may be able to be convinced otherwise — the big separating factor here is the lack of draft pick compensation. While Boston’s front office has been mostly mum on their strategy this winter, it seems largely clear they don’t want to give up their early second round pick and the slot value associated with it. That would be part of the cost of acquiring Bauer. For Sugano, it would only be money, though it would of course cost a little more than just his contract value as Boston (or whoever signs him) would be responsible for a posting fee proportional to the overall value of his contract to be sent to his former team, the Yomiuri Giants.
As far as what the contract could look like for Sugano, it’s hard to pin down a great prediction. The most recent comparable pitcher to come over from the NPB in terms of performance is likely the aforementioned Tanaka, who got a seven-year deal from the Yankees worth $155 million. Tanaka was only 25 years old at that point, though, so Sugano won’t get that much. More recently, Yusei Kikuchi got a four-year deal worth $56 million, and that seems like a good benchmark to me. Kikuchi was not as accomplished coming to the States, but he was also four years younger at that time. Again, that is just a total guess, but something around four-ish years and in the general neighborhood of $14-ish million annually is probably a safe-ish bet.
The Red Sox are not going to be the only team competing to sign Sugano, who was posted a few weeks ago and has to sign with a team by January 7. But they do have some of the deepest pockets in baseball and this seems like a near-perfect time to take advantage of that fact. Assuming they are not willing to give up that draft pick for Bauer, it is a steep drop for any other pitcher with major-league experience. Sugano is the bridge between, and one who has proven he can be elite at the second highest level in professional baseball. The Red Sox should be the team to give him a chance at the highest.