Japanese pitching sensation Roki Sasaki has asked the Chiba Lotte Marines to make him available to MLB teams via the posting system this winter, according to Sponichi Annex (Japanese language link from Yahoo Japan). Nippon Professional Baseball teams have until December 15 to post players for possible moves to Major League Baseball in advance of the 2024 season, and this brief timeline alone makes it highly unlikely that the Marines will grant Sasaki’s request.
In the broader picture, it is quite rare for Japanese players to ask to be posted so early in their careers, as the 22-year-old Sasaki has only played three seasons in NPB. As per MLB’s posting rules, players must be at least 25 years and have at least six pro seasons under their belt in order to receive anything more than a minor league contract. Big league clubs could also only pay such players money from their international bonus pools, and with this year’s international signing window yet to open on January 15, teams have long since committed the bulk of their pool money to prospects. Shohei Ohtani faced these restrictions when he came to the majors at age 23, and thus received only a minors deal from the Angels and a $2.3MM signing bonus.
Jorge Castillo and Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times profiled Sasaki last month, noting that Sasaki’s contract with the Marines “is thought to” have an escape clause that would allow the righty to leave for the majors at any time. Ohtani enacted such a clause in 2017, though Ohtani had played five seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.
The Sponichi article didn’t give any mention about such a contractual opt-out, though the unusual timing of Sasaki’s request perhaps does indicate that he has some leverage to take this rather immediate plunge into the posting system. Castillo/Harris wrote that the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants have all “intensely scouted” Sasaki in Japan, and at one point, the Dodgers thought that Sasaki would be available as early as this offseason.
Sasaki wouldn’t achieve full free agency until he has nine seasons of service time, and in general, NPB teams don’t post players early until they’re a year or two away from that nine-season threshold. For instance, Yoshinobu Yamamoto played seven seasons with the Orix Buffaloes before the Buffaloes agreed to post the star righty this winter, and the 25-year-old Yamamoto now looks poised to command a contract well north of $200MM.
Yamamoto’s combination of youth and skill has all but guaranteed a huge contract, yet even his number could pale in comparison to what Sasaki might receive. Though he would seemingly be limited to a minor league deal at first and would have to wait at least a few seasons into an MLB career to sign an extension without drawing attention from the league office, that might be a risk Sasaki is willing to take given the potential huge payoff down the road. In the interim, he won’t be lacking in compensation, since a jump to the majors would surely boost his endorsement appeal.
Over 283 2/3 career innings with the Marines, Sasaki has a 2.00 ERA, 34.4% strikeout rate, and 5.12% walk rate, and these video-game numbers are only part of Sasaki’s burgeoning legend. His fastball routinely sits in the upper-90s and has topped out at 102.5mph, and his forkball is arguably an even deadlier pitch. Sasaki’s pitched well for Japan’s gold medal-winning team at the 2023 World Baseball Classic, and he has two NPB All-Star appearances on his resume. Most famously, Sasaki came within an inning of back-to-back perfect games — he tossed a perfecto against the Buffaloes in April 2022 that saw him record 13 straight strikeouts amidst an NPB-record 19 K’s in his masterpiece of a start. Incredibly, Sasaki followed that up with eight perfect innings in his next outing before being pulled before the start of the ninth due to pitch count reasons (102 pitches).
The Marines’ desire to preserve Sasaki’s arm and overall health has been a main storyline of his career. He was the first overall pick of the 2019 NPB draft, yet he didn’t make his debut with Chiba until May 2021, as the team wanted to ease his development into pro ball. Sasaki missed about six weeks this season due to an oblique strain, limiting him to 91 innings for the 2023 campaign. As MLB’s Dai Takegami Podziewski noted in his last installment of the NPB Players To Watch feature, durability is basically the last question Sasaki has to really answer about his long-term potential, and the righty’s 6’4″, 203-pound frame would suggest that he is perhaps built to hold up under the larger workloads faced by Major League pitchers.
While it remains to be seen if Sasaki will actually be able to enter the 2023-24 free agent market, it would obviously be a game changer in a winter that already has a lot of high-end starters still on the board. If nothing else, Sasaki’s request might well be setting a stage for a posting next winter, when he could join another loaded pitching class that might include Corbin Burnes, Max Fried, Walker Buehler, Shane Bieber, Tyler Glasnow, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and possibly even Gerrit Cole if the Yankees don’t enact a contract clause preventing Cole from opting out.