The biggest question stemming from the Yomiuri Giants’ decision to post pitcher Shun Yamaguchi to MLB is not how Yamaguchi might fare in the majors.
It’s when will Tomoyuki Sugano get there?
After years ago solidifying their resistance to the posting system on the back of denials to pitcher Koji Uehara, the Giants will finally allow a player to seek an MLB contract through the system, something unthinkable even a few days ago.
Now that the door is open, the natural question is what comes next? Sugano likely wouldn’t be able to make a move to MLB until after the 2021 season, but you have to wonder if Yamaguchi blazed a trail for him to go a little earlier.
The team may point to its free agent negotiations with Yamaguchi in 2016, when it may have agreed post him at some point if he signed, as a way around its previous stance of not using the posting system. Then, in a roundabout way, Yomiuri can couch this as a special case and still continue to make players it drafts wait until reaching international free agency.
“With each individual player, we’ll decide by monitoring the trends,” team president Tsukasa Imamura said during a news conference with Yamaguchi and manager Tatsunori Hara on Monday afternoon.
Which should make Sugano’s ears perk up. MLB teams’ too.
Because the trend, even as the Giants and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have stood against it, has been to eventually post players — sometimes even down the road after an initial denial. Although, there is much less incentive than before thanks to the version of the system adopted last year.
That aside, If any Giants player, other than maybe shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, has done enough to warrant consideration it’s Sugano, who has said MLB was among his goals.
Yamaguchi was seemingly also given a little credit for his performance this year in helping lead the team to its first Central League pennant since 2014. Yamaguchi was 15-4 with a 2.91 ERA. He led the CL in wins and with 188 strikeouts and a .789 winning percentage.
So let’s imagine Sugano has a typically Sugano-type year in 2020 and helps the Giants win a pennant or the Japan Series. Or if he helps Japan win gold in the Tokyo Olympics.
What logic will the Giants use to not post him, if he wishes it? Especially now that Yamaguchi is on the move. The gateway from Yomiuri to the posting system went from being locked in a bank vault to sitting behind a screen door.
The Giants, though, still have the keys and are within their rights to keep Sugano (for whatever reason) until he earns his international free agency rights.
But if the Kyojin do indeed monitor the trends, they may find public opinion might not be so firmly behind them. Japan has come a long way since the days when Hideo Nomo was vilified for leaving for North America. So the fans could very well be behind Sugano if he wants to pitch in the majors.
Sugano has already sacrificed one year of his career for Yomiuri. After being drafted by Hokkaido Nippon Ham in 2011, he chose to sit out a season in hopes of re-entering the draft and landing with Yomiuri, managed then and now by Hara, his uncle.
There would also be no way to downplay his contributions to the team. He’s been a big part of two pennant winners and has won two Sawamura Awards.
He had a down year by his standards this season, finishing 11-6 with a career-worst 3.89 ERA. Even with that, Sugano has a career 2.36 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 1,222 2/3 innings. He’s 87-47 for Yomiuri.
He had an unforgettable 2018, going 15-8 with a 2.14 ERA in 202 innings with 200 strikeouts, 10 complete games and eight shutouts. When he won the second of two straight Sawamura Awards that year, he cleared all seven of the award’s much talked about suggested benchmarks (at least 25 games started, 10 complete games, 15 wins, 600 winning percentage, 200 innings pitched, 150 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.50 or lower).
Even with Yamaguchi departing, it’s hard to imagine the Giants doing a complete 180 on the posting system. But the door is open, even if it’s only to special cases like Yamaguchi.
Even under that circumstance, the Giants may soon have to consider that no player on their team right now is as special as their ace pitcher.