Will the Red Sox make a splash this offseason? Boston has financial flexibility and a strong desire to bounce back from a disappointing 2020. As such, we’ll examine whether several notable free agents make sense (or don?t make sense) as the club looks to retool for 2021 and beyond.
The starting pitching market received a boost this week, as the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball formally posted right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano for teams across Major League Baseball.
Sugano now has until Jan. 7 to agree to terms with an MLB club, and it already appears there is no shortage of interest in the 31-year-old.
Of course, evaluating international talent can be tricky. Not only must we rely mostly on scouting reports and the observations of those in the know, but it’s also nearly impossible to predict how a player’s skills will translate in the United States, where the competition is different.
We’re not going to let that dissuade us from trying to make sense of Sugano’s free agency, though. Teams undoubtedly are doing their homework, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the Japanese hurler winds up being an impactful contributor in 2021 and beyond.
But could the Boston Red Sox sign Sugano?
Boston Sports Journal’s Sean McAdam recently reported the Red Sox “intend to be aggressive in their pursuit,” and MLB insider Jon Morosi subsequently confirmed the organization’s interest. So, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
Let’s examine whether it’s a good match.
Age: 31 (Oct. 11, 1989)
Weight: 183 pounds
20 appearances (137 1/3 innings)
14-2 record, 1.97 ERA, 131 strikeouts
0.89 WHIP, 8.6 K/9
*all with the Yomiuri Giants of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB)
196 appearances (1,360 innings)
101-49 record, 2.32 ERA, 1,214 strikeouts
1.03 WHIP, 8.0 K/9
*all in the Japan Central League of NPB
Why Sugano makes sense for Red Sox:
The Red Sox obviously need pitching, and Sugano might have more upside than any free agent starter available besides Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner.
ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel listed Sugano as the 13th-best MLB free agent available this winter — and fifth-best starting pitcher available, behind only Bauer, Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman and Masahiro Tanaka.
(Stroman and Gausman since have accepted one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offers from the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, respectively.)
“Sugano is a reliable fourth (give or take) starter, so think bulk innings with an ERA around 4.00,” McDaniel wrote.
While that doesn’t exactly scream “ace,” there’s significant value in that type of production, especially with there being serious question marks in Boston’s rotation after a disastrous 2020.
Plus, other projections seem even more bullish on Sugano, who won the Sawamura Award as NPB’s top pitcher in 2017 and 2018.
“One MLB scout said Monday that Sugano?s fastball has late action and typically ranges from 91-93 mph, topping out at 95,” Morosi wrote. “Sugano’s slider is known as his best secondary offering, and he also throws a forkball and changeup that can be above-average pitches.”
All told, Sugano might be the best pitcher to come out of Japan since Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees in 2014.
Not bad. Certainly more appealing than a lot of other starters available, especially when you take into account his age (31) and the likelihood of attaining him at a reasonable rate thanks to the inherent risk of signing a player with no MLB experience.
McDaniel projects a two-year, $24 million contract for Sugano — on top of the requisite release fee paid to the pitcher’s Japanese club, which in this case would be $4.8 million, bringing the total expenditure to $28.8 million.
(The release fee is equal to 20 percent of Sugano’s first $25 million in guaranteed salary. After that, it’s 17.5 percent of the next $25 million and 15 percent of any amount beyond $50 million.)
Why Sugano doesn’t make sense for Red Sox:
For every Tanaka or, better yet, Yu Darvish, there’s a Kei Igawa or Yusei Kikuchi.
As mentioned, scouting international talent is tough, especially since there are millions of dollars involved. It ultimately comes down to how much an organization trusts its scouting department and whether it’s willing to absorb the risk that comes with rolling the dice.
The Red Sox seemingly are in a position of strength this offseason as a big-market franchise that just reset its luxury tax. That allows for some creative spending, but no one wants to light money on fire. And there’s always a chance Sugano falters in MLB, to the point where the investment becomes a sunken cost.
Basically, signing Sugano would be a calculated gamble for a Red Sox team already wondering when Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery) will return and whether Eduardo Rodriguez (myocarditis) will take another step forward after missing all of 2020.
Boston might prefer a more proven, albeit less exiting, option.
Prediction: Sugano signs with the San Francisco Giants.