Japanese right-hander Kodai Senga will be looking to sign with an MLB team this winter. He figures to garner plenty of interest based on his track record of success with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He’s already been connected to the Cubs, while Jon Morosi of MLB Network adds the Blue Jays and Mariners to the mix (Twitter links). Kevin Acee of The San Diego Union-Tribune lists the Padres as interested, while adding that virtually every other team will be as well.
The widespread interest is easy to understand. Just about every team in baseball could use an upgrade in the starting rotation and Senga seems plenty capable of providing that. Turning 30 in January, he already has a years-long track record of success in Japan. Most recently, he tossed 144 innings in 2022 with a 1.94 ERA, 27.5% strikeout rate and 8.6% walk rate.
Adding to the interest will be that Senga is a proper free agent and not subject to the posting system. When players come over from Japan or Korea, they will usually be posted by their NPB or KBO team. The MLB team that signs the player would have to pay a fee to the posting team, which is not a cut of the contract. It’s an additional cost that is not subtracted from what the player is owed. However, the Hawks have a policy against posting their players and thus held onto Senga until their control over his services was exhausted. Going into his final year of control, he signed an extension with the team but one that allowed him the opportunity to opt out and become a proper free agent. That means that whoever signs Senga will not have to pay any extra fees to the Hawks.
The Blue Jays make for a fairly logical Senga suitor, given their starting pitching struggles in 2022. The Jays were able to win 92 games on the year but did so largely on the strength of their lineup and in spite of a lopsided starting rotation. Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman were excellent and provided the club with a strong one-two punch, but that was also offset by poor performances from José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi.
In the case of Berríos, he kept his ERA steadily between 3.52 and 4.00 for the five previous seasons before seeing it balloon up to 5.23 in his first full season with Toronto. Kikuchi was up-and-down during his time with the Mariners but posted a 5.19 ERA after signing a three-year deal with the Jays. Mitch White, acquired from the Dodgers in a deadline deal when he had a 3.70 ERA, ended up posting a 7.74 figure in his time with Toronto. After Hyun Jin Ryu required Tommy John surgery, swingman Ross Stripling stepped up and seized a rotation job, finishing the year with a 3.01 ERA in 134 1/3 innings. However, he’s now a free agent, leaving the Jays with a rotation of two solid starters and three question marks.
For the Padres, they also make good sense as a landing spot for Senga since they are seeing two holes open up in their rotation. Both Mike Clevinger and Sean Manaea are now free agents, leaving the club’s rotation with Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. They also subtracted from their depth options at the deadline when MacKenzie Gore was included in the Juan Soto trade. One other wild card is Nick Martinez, who began 2022 in the rotation before getting bumped to the bullpen. He can opt out of his deal and become a free agent though his decision on that matter hasn’t yet been reported publicly.
Darvish and Snell are also set to reach free agency after 2023, leaving Musgrove as potentially the last man standing in 2024. Making a significant addition to the rotation would be sensible for the Padres both in the short term and the long term. They have some internal options to potentially help them out, with Adrian Morejon and Jay Groome on hand. However, Morejon missed most of 2021 due to Tommy John surgery and worked in relief when he returned in 2022. The club is reportedly not giving up on him as a starter just yet, but he will likely have to earn his way into a job by proving his health and effectiveness. Groome has shown a lot of potential in the minors but has yet to make his MLB debut and will also likely have to force his way into the picture.
The Mariners are less of an obvious fit than the other two teams here, as they actually seem to have a rotation surplus at the moment. The acquisition and subsequent extension of Luis Castillo gave them a strong front four, including Robbie Ray, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert. They also have a pair of good options for the final rotation spot in Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen. Since Flexen was bumped to the bullpen after Castillo came aboard and is now just one year away from free agency, he’s been speculated as a trade candidate. Signing someone like Senga would add to a situation that’s already fairly crowded, though it wouldn’t necessarily be out of character for president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto to make a move that leads to other moves. He didn’t get the nickname “Trader Jerry” for nothing, after all.
Of course, Senga’s market surely isn’t limited to these three teams. As Acee mentioned, just about every club is likely to have some degree of interest in him, the old adage about never having too much pitching getting heavy usage in the offseason and whatnot. The top of the free agent market for starting pitchers will feature aces like Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon. Those three will surely require massive contracts that will price out some teams, leaving Senga as an attractive option on the next tier.