It simply wasn’t the right time for Tomoyuki Sugano.
After sacrificing one year of his career for the Yomiuri Giants — after the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won his rights in the 2011 draft — and then giving the Kyojin eight seasons of elite-level pitching, the door to MLB finally opened for Sugano via the posting system this year.
What lay on the other side, however, was a tepid free agent market, a bunch of teams crying poverty and an ongoing pandemic that continues to make the situation unpredictable on and off the diamond in North America. It was enough to convince Sugano to close the door, for now, on his dream of playing in the majors.
So the 31-year-old righty, who was posted by the Giants last month, will continue pitching for Yomiuri for at least another season after failing to reach a deal with an MLB team before the 30-day posting window closed on Thursday.
“This decision is the result of going to the U.S. this month and listening to various people and considering the outlook of the MLB season and the worsening situation of the coronavirus,” Sugano was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports. “I reached the conclusion to play for the Giants again this year.”
It’s a shame.
Japanese players don’t owe it to MLB to make the jump to that league nor do they need it to validate their careers. Sugano, however, wanted to go there and face that challenge and it would’ve been very interesting to watch. He has the makeup of a solid player and the track record in NPB — where he has a 2.32 ERA in 1,360 innings and has shown excellent command of his pitches — to back that up.
“He’s been watching MLB baseball the last two years since I’ve known him,” said Warren Cromartie, who played for the Giants from 1985-90 and was a hitting adviser with the team the past two seasons. “We’ve watched and we’ve talked a little bit about that. He’s a big (Justin) Verlander fan, he’s a big (Gerrit) Cole fan. He had his sights set on it. He was watching and putting himself in that mental situation.
“I’m a little surprised he didn’t sign. I’m surprised they couldn’t work out something.”
It was seemingly a confluence of imperfect events that kept Sugano in Japan.
On one hand, the MLB free agent market has slowed to a crawl over the past few years, as owners have seemingly only stopped counting their money long enough to tell everyone they don’t have any money. Which has left free agents to twist on the vine.
There were reports Sugano had offers on the table, but none, apparently, were to his liking. In a business where players are often treated more as commodities to be bought, sold and traded, Sugano seemed to value his worth at a certain level and didn’t bend. That takes an admirable amount of conviction for a player north of 30 who is trying to break into the league.
“You might get another chance to do this,” Cromartie said. “But that’s another year added to his age that they may look at.”
The more pressing issue, however, may have been the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s January and we still don’t really know how it’s going to impact the 2021 MLB season — to say nothing of North America in general.
What happens as a result of the virus could potentially impact revenue and could be giving teams a reason to be even more miserly than they’ve been in recent free agent cycles. That’s also without factoring in if the virus impacted the way Sugano and his team were able to interact with MLB clubs during the process.
Given the combination of a market where he apparently didn’t get a deal he liked, an offseason changed by the coronavirus and the uncertainty of how the virus may continue to affect the sports world, it’s not hard to see why Sugano chose another year with the Kyojin.
He returns to a Yomiuri team primed for another run at a Japan Series title after winning the last two Central League pennants. In July, there’s a good chance he’ll be one of the centerpieces for a Samurai Japan squad that’ll be favored to win a gold medal if the Tokyo Olympics actually happen.
Perhaps the cushion of a sizable contract from the Giants, one that should also allow him to give MLB another shot, and the potential for domestic and international success made it easier for Sugano to choose the stability — relatively speaking — of Japan.
Sometimes, it seems everything comes together at just the right time to give an athlete a life-altering opportunity. Unfortunately for Sugano, those forces seemed to move in the opposite direction this time.
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