Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano has been cleared to move to the major leagues via the posting system, the Central League club told multiple Japanese news outlets on Wednesday.
The question now is whether he wants to go. Will he jump toward his long-cherished dream of challenging major league hitters next year or spend another season in a nation that has handled the coronavirus in a more efficient fashion and where the risk of infection is relatively low.
Staying in Japan will mean playing in front of crowds in 2021, something major league baseball cannot offer. Part of the charm of going to the States to play baseball is to play in the splendid parks politicians get taxpayers to buy for billionaire owners. But since no one knows when teams will be allowed to let fans in, it could mean another year of cardboard cutouts in empty barns.
Japanese candidates to move to MLB
For those unfamiliar with Sugano, he is one of the faster starting pitchers in Japan, the average velocity of his four-seam fastball according to analytics site Delta Graphs is 92.5 mph, but that is with plus command. He also has superb command of a plus slider, with an average to above-average fastball and splitter. Think Yu Darvish with less velocity and less than a dozen different pitchers but with consistently better location.
He will be eligible for international free agency after the 2021 season, so there is a chance the Giants will go against their history and post him this autumn.
Not if but when
Japan’s most notorious scandal rag, Tokyo Sports, reported this summer that the Giants were laying the groundwork for a Sugano posting, and one typically wants to ignore anything they publish, but the topic of when Sugano will move to the U.S. majors is one that gets asked A LOT. After all, the winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award as Japan’s most-impressive starting pitcher in 2017 and 2018, threatened to go to MLB if a team other than the Yomiuri Giants drafted him out of university.
Although it is said Sugano’s first choice would have been MLB rather than the Giants, the pull of family ties — his uncle, Tatsunori Hara, managed the team — proved too strong to ignore.
After the Nippon Ham Fighters won his negotiating rights in the 2011 draft, Sugano stayed out of baseball for a year so he would be eligible for the following season’s draft. At that time, the Giants had vowed never to post a player, so it was believed that Sugano would need nine years of service time to qualify for international free agency after the 2021 season at the earliest.
Yamaguchi becomes No. 1
But things have since changed. Last winter, the Giants posted right-hander Shun Yamaguchi. The Giants knew the move was coming and delayed making the announcement as long as they could. But MLB teams were already hearing about it, ostensibly from Yamaguchi’s agent, and the Giants finally made the announcement just before the start of MLB’s general managers meetings, when it was certain to be revealed.
The funny thing about Yamaguchi’s posting was at least one Yomiuri executive calling it an exception that had nothing to do with team policy. What eventually came out was that the team was contractually obligated to post Yamaguchi, after agreeing to that in his supplemental contract.
The hidden game of NPB contracts
While most fans may see the Giants decision to post Sugano as a matter of the team’s respect for his service, and there may be something to that, a more likely consideration would be whether he can require them to do so.
NPB contracts are one-year deals that stipulate a player’s salary for the following year and how it will be paid. When players agree to multiyear contracts, those contracts are referred to as supplemental contracts, riders, or side agreements. Nippon Professional Baseball does not handle these. They are strictly between the player and the team and their details are rarely made public.
Teams that post players may be doing so out of respect and honor but unlike deals in MLB, they are not micromanaged through the filter of the CBA, and could include basically anything that does not violate the terms of NPB’s charter. They couldn’t for example, promise to make a player an owner, or lend him to another team, since those acts are prohibited. But huge undisclosed bonuses? Sure. Promises to post or grant free agency under certain conditions? No problem.
Unless he is hurt and unable to play more than half of the 2021 season, Sugano will be free to walk then. Prior to Yamaguchi’s posting one could not imagine the Giants posting a player, but they DID agree to a deal that required them to do so in order to sign Yamaguchi. Sugano might have that kind of clause in his side deal as well, although we’re unlikely ever to find out.
The only thing we will know is that if Sugano does walk four months from now, the Giants will couch their decisions in terms of how they did at as a sign of respect for the individual and not because they were contractually obligated to do so.