Pitcher Kodai Senga’s future lies in the balance. The right-hander, who has long asked the SoftBank Hawks to post him to the majors only to be refused, is now eying international free agency after the 2022 season.
But while that may seem a long way off, the future of the Hawks’ ace could be decided as early as next month. If the Hawks are cautious with their ace in the same way they were cautious with another major league aspirant, star center fielder Yuki Yanagita in 2019, then Senga may be screwed.
In the 2019 season, the Hawks took every possible precaution with Yanagita as he rehabbed from a leg injury.
Yanagita, a five-tool major league-style outfielder who had told everyone his dream was to play in the majors, had been targeting 2021 as the year he would report to camp, not on Feb. 1 in Miyazaki, but in March in either Florida or California after nine years on the Hawks’ first team.
Then he got hurt. He was deactivated on April 8, 2019, but was not reactivated until Aug. 21, and when the season ended, his service time clock stood at 7 years, 135 days — 10 days short of an eighth year, meaning his 2021 major league move was delayed — and eventually abandoned when the Hawks offered him a huge multiyear contract to stay in Japan.
One would think the Hawks would cut Yanagita some slack. From 2015 to 2018, Yanagita produced four straight MVP-caliber seasons and became the second player in Japanese pro baseball history to lead his league in slugging and on-base percentage four seasons in a row.
But the Hawks took no chances with their star, and now they’re in the same situation with Senga.
Senga missed three months after hurting his ankle in his season debut, and with the 60 days he gets for being hurt on the field of play, his service time clock now stands, by my best estimate, at 7 years, 83 days.
If the Hawks fail to reach the playoffs, a possibility this year, they will have 70 days left on their calendar after the Olympic break. If Senga is deactivated even once during that stretch, the 28-year-old will be in danger of not qualifying for free agency until the 2023 season, meaning he couldn’t report to a major league camp until after he turns 31.