How Tomoyuki Sugano Could Shakeup SF Giants Offseason

Japanese starting pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano (11) pitches against the United States during the second inning of the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium. He was posted in December by the Yomiuri Giants and was tied to the SF Giants. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
Japanese starting pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano (11) pitches against the United States during the second inning of the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium. He was posted in December by the Yomiuri Giants and was tied to the SF Giants. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports) /
SF Giants, Tomoyuki Sugano, Yomiuri Giants
Yomiuri Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano could be on the SF Giants radar if he’s posted this offseason. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports) /

Everyone knows the SF Giants need to upgrade their starting rotation. If the Yomiuri Giants post ace Tomoyuki Sugano, could he be the answer?

On Friday, in the first game of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) championship series, the Yomiuri Giants fell to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks by a score of 5-1. While the series is far from over, speculation around the future of Yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano is reaching a fever pitch. Joel Sherman of The New York Post reported that Sugano is likely to be posted this offseason and receive offers from MLB teams.

Sherman listed the SF Giants alongside the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox as teams expected to be aggressive on the free-agent market with room for Sugano’s arm. If it does come down to those three teams, the Giants can offer him the closest proximity to home and the clearest avenue to a spot at the top of the team’s rotation.

Considered one of the best pitchers in Japan, Sugano has won the league’s Most Valuable Player and two Sawamura Awards (the NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young) since debuting in 2013. In 2020, Sugano’s managed an elite 2.04 ERA across 132.1 innings (19 starts) with 126 strikeouts, just 25 walks, and 96 hits. Over his career, Sugano maintains a career 2.34 ERA over 1357 innings (196 games) with 1211 strikeouts, 265 walks, and 1144 hits.

Just a few years ago, the idea of Tomoyuki Sugano playing for an MLB team seemed impossible. The Yomiuri Giants had maintained a firm anti-posting policy for the entire franchise’s history. That changed last offseason when they posted starting pitcher Shun Yamaguchi, who went on to sign with the Blue Jays.

If Sugano is indeed posted this winter, all MLB teams will be allowed to negotiate a contract with him for 30 days. Assuming he comes to an agreement, whichever team that signs him will then have to pay Yomiuri a “posting fee” equivalent to a percentage of the guarantees in his contract. Given the suppressed nature of this year’s free-agent market though, it’s hard to imagine that number reaching anything massive by MLB standards.

Sugano’s prolonged dominance rests on his plus-plus command and ability to manipulate all of his pitches. While his fastball sits from 90-94 mph, it plays up because of his ability to locate it on the corners and tunnel it with his other pitches. If you count every variation in his pitch mix, Sugano has more than five (possibly seven) pitches. However, at its core, he compliments his fastball with a plus slider and splitfinger. Tom Mussa over at Prospects Live wrote an in-depth scouting report of Sugano back in September.

Finding an ideal comp for Sugano already in the big leagues is difficult because of his advanced command and the dearth of pitchers still using a splitter. While there are similarities in Sugano’s pitch-mix with Yamaguchi (who was also on the Yomiuri Giants from 2017-2019),  Yamaguchi is clearly a tier below Sugano when he was posted last offseason.

Over their respective careers in Japan, Sugano’s ERA is over a run lower with a far better walk and nearly identical strikeout rates. Sugano will also be over a year younger than Yamaguchi when he makes his MLB debut, assuming he comes stateside this winter. If you are looking for a player with a similar history of productivity in Japan making the transition, Masahiro Tanaka’s numbers are far more similar.

Los Angeles Dodgers righty Tony Gonsolin seems like a fair comparison, albeit an imperfect one. Gonsolin’s oscillated between long-relief and the starting rotation in Los Angeles and has a bit more punch in his fastball. He also relies on his splitter over his slider, Sugano’s tendency is the opposite. However, Gonsolin has been very effective with strong control and a similar repertoire.

While there is still plenty of time left in the MLB offseason, the Giants are unlikely to see many changes to their current roster. With the majority of 2020 contributors under team control for 2021, there just are not too many open spots in the lineup without some unexpected trade, non-tender, or release. The only obvious holes remain in the team’s pitching staff, particularly the starting rotation.

With Kevin Gausman back in the fold after accepting his qualifying offer, Giants manager Gabe Kapler could use at least one more trustworthy starter to feel confident heading into next season. It’s hard to see a better fit than Sugano. His command and pitch mix are strong enough to be an effective mid-rotation starter immediately. However, there’s reason to believe his ability to generate weak contact and limit free passes could give him even more upside.

At 31, Sugano is far from a projection signing, but that might not be the worst thing for a SF Giants team hoping to break a four-year playoff drought. For an organization that sees its window opening soon, he will not command a contract that would hamstring a payroll far into the future but has the track record to justify a contract locking him up past 2022.

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Yomiuri Giants righthanded pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano has easily been one of the best pitchers in Japan since debuting in 2013. The 31-year old can offer an SF Giants team desperate for trustworthy starting pitchers a strong mid-rotation arm with upside. There are always risks when international players transition to MLB, but Sugano appears poised to become, at the minimum, a sturdy innings eater.