Twice in the last ten days, Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney at The Athletic have dropped a reference to a specific free agent, and I’m thinking we’re going to want to pay attention to that.
First, in an article primarily about the Cubs’ search for offensive power this offseason, The Athletic duo mention one pitcher specifically by name (emphasis mine):
At minimum this winter, it looks like the Cubs will layer their roster with two more large investments along the lines of the contracts guaranteed to Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman. Signing one of the All-Star shortstops — Carlos Correa, Trea Turner or Xander Bogaerts — and a frontline starting pitcher like Koudai Senga out of Japan would move the needle.
Then, in a fresh article today about Drew Smyly and the Cubs (great read for that stuff!), Sharma writes this (again, emphasis mine):
It could make sense to try and lure Jacob deGrom on a high average annual value, short-term deal, similar to the one Max Scherzer signed with the Mets (three years, $130 million) last winter. That is probably a long shot though. Carlos Rodón putting together a full, healthy season likely has the Cubs intrigued, and Japanese righty Koudai Senga will be pursued as well. Those are the type of big-name players the Cubs should and likely will be looking to add this winter.
Hmm. A “frontline starting pitcher,” with Koudai Senga name-dropped twice, “will be pursued.”
So, yeah, I would put Senga squarely on your radar.
You remember Koudai Senga, right? He’s the 29-year-old ace out of Japan with a mid-90s fastball, available as a true free agent this offseason — which means no draft pick compensation (like Carlos Rodon this offseason, who is reportedly interested in signing with the Cubs) and no posting fee (like Seiya Suzuki cost the Cubs last winter).
We discussed his availability and attractiveness about a month ago, in case you missed it:
So will he be any good in the states?
Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to determine out how a specific player’s skillset will translate from Japan to MLB. Some players have a great deal of success, of course, but some never quite make the transition. And since I’m not intimately familiar with Senga, I can’t tell you for sure that he’ll be a No. 2 or No. 3 (or whatever) in the States.
But I can tell you that he’s been VERY good in the NPB and has the sort of stuff that certainly could work in MLB. Let’s start with a quick look at the numbers:
This season (2022), Senga has a 2.05 ERA over 16 starts and 105.1 IP. He’s struck out a massive 115 batters during that stretch (28.1 K%) while walking just 33 (8.0%), and batters are having a very hard time finding grass when they do put the ball in play (just 74 hits). But he’s far from a one-hit wonder.
Senga has a career 2.45 ERA in Japan over 268 starts and nearly 1,300 IP.
Setting aside the stats, Senga also hurls a fastball around 95-96 MPH on average, but I’ve read multiple reports of him dialing it up into the upper-90s (even touching 100 mph) in the past. Senga also throws a slider, a cutter, and a two-seamer, as well as the occasional curveball, but it’s his forkball that receives most of the attention.
Since I wrote that post, Senga’s ERA in the NPB this season dropped to 2.03. For some context, Masahiro Tanaka was posting ERAs under 2.00 for the four years before he came to the States and joined the Yankees in advance of his age 25 season. It’s been eight years at this point, but Tanaka’s deal was for seven years and $155 million.
Bringing it back to our duo at The Athletic: I found it interesting to see Senga’s name mentioned – of all the possible free agent starting pitchers to bring up — by Sharma and Mooney, whom I consider among the most well-informed and tapped-in writers on the Cubs beat. And while I don’t necessarily think they’re hiding any inside information about where that process is headed (I’m sure Senga doesn’t even know for sure where he’ll end up), I do think it’s worth keeping him in mind. And as a fan, I’m just happy to see a building consensus around what seems to be a pretty obvious fit for the Cubs.
And for even more confirmation of his expected impact, Jeff Passan includes Senga in his second highest tier of impending free agents, a group that includes Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson, Edwin Diaz, and Chris Bassitt:
Koudai Senga, RHSP: Teams have long awaited the day Senga comes to MLB, and with his free agency finally a reality, if he chooses to do so, he’ll be one of the most popular players this winter. His stuff is unimpeachable: a fastball that hit 101.9 mph earlier this year and a split-fingered fastball that moves as if possessed. At 6-1, 200 pounds, Senga isn’t necessarily imposing, but his numbers this season — 124 innings, 89 hits, 40 walks, 137 strikeouts, seven home runs allowed, 2.03 ERA — certainly qualify.
Needless to say, he’s going to be a highly-coveted free agent this winter.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.