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Unlike the vast window that remains open for most free agents to sign, one player drawing interest from the Mets is on the clock to strike a deal.
Tomoyuki Sugano, a Japanese right-hander who was posted by the Yomiuri Giants earlier this month, has until 5 p.m. on Jan. 7 to sign with an MLB team. Since an actual signed contract is necessary by the deadline it’s likely Sugano will have to decide by this weekend, allowing time for a physical exam and contract language to be finalized.
The 31-year-old Sugano has twice won the Sawamura award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. The Mets have been on a fact-finding mission, given that much of their most recent scouting of Sugano, who went 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA for Yomiuri last season, dates to the 2017 World Baseball Classic, when he dominated for Japan against the US.
Yomiuri’s manager, Tatsunori Hara (who is Sugano’s uncle), has told associates that Sugano in ability is probably somewhere between Masahiro Tanaka, before he tore an elbow ligament, and Kenta Maeda. That translates into Sugano projecting as a middle-of-the-rotation arm.
“At the National League level, against the top National League teams, I don’t think he’s a shut-them-down kind of pitcher,” said a talent evaluator who has tracked Sugano’s career. “But I think he’s the kind of pitcher that will get you to your good arms in the bullpen. He will find a way, because he’s not going to hurt himself with walks. He can really field his position, one of those guys. I wouldn’t mind him going out there.
“The velocity isn’t max velocity, but on the four-seamer the spin rate is exceptional so he’s able to get it by hitters up in the zone, if it’s up out of the zone. He has a forkball and he’s pitched in the craziest environment in which you can pitch.”
The fact Sugano plays for Japan’s most storied franchise, managed by his uncle, has prepared him for anything New York City could throw in his direction, according to the talent evaluator.
“They scrutinize mercilessly the fact [Hara] drafted his nephew and then made him the No. 1 pitcher on the team,” the talent evaluator said. “It’s a pressure cooker. Some people would think it was a comfortable situation pitching for Hara — it wasn’t comfortable. If [Sugano] wasn’t exceptional every time he pitched, there was scrutiny on the manager and scrutiny on the pitcher. [Fans and media] are pretty ruthless there.”
If Sugano departs to the US, the Yomiuri Giants will receive a release fee from his new team. That payment is 20 percent of the first $25 million on the deal; 17.5 percent of the next $25 million and 15 percent of anything beyond $50 million.
Hideki Matsui was the most notable Yomiuri Giants player to post for a MLB team (he signed with the Yankees before the 2003 season). Yomiuri doesn’t often post players, in part to avoid embarrassment should the player underperform in MLB.
Sugano, if he signs with the Mets, would slot into a rotation that includes Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman and David Peterson, with Seth Lugo and Steven Matz as possibilities for starting duty. Trevor Bauer is the top free-agent starting pitcher available, with Tanaka and Jake Odorizzi on the next tier of options.
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