George Springer remains the centerpiece to the Mets’ renovation plans this offseason.
He is not the only star on their radar, however.
The Mets are, at minimum, looking into Tomoyuki Sugano and one outside executive said, “Watch the Mets on this. I think they have as good a chance as anyone.”
Sugano, the long-time ace of the Yomiuri Giants, has twice won the Sawamura award, the Japanese equivalent of MLB’s Cy Young. There is not a consensus where he slots in MLB, with some evaluators seeing a top-of-the-rotation stalwart and others a quality mid-rotation piece.
He nevertheless is viewed as a strongly pursued commodity and, thus, it is not publicly known who the favorites are to land him. But we should know soon. Unlike so much in this slow-moving offseason, the Sugano destination should be known within two weeks.
As part of an agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, a posted player has one month from his posting to sign or he returns to play in Japan. So, a contract with Sugano must be completed by 5 p.m. on Jan. 7, which means an agreement must be in place probably several days before that to provide time for physical review of the pitcher.
If the Mets were to land Sugano it would provide another symbol of a shifting dynamic in New York baseball with Steve Cohen now owning the Mets. The Yankees have been the New York team that has landed mega-stars from Japan in Hideki Irabu, Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka. The Mets’ biggest foray was an ill-fated, three-year, $23 million accord with Kazuo Matsui, who was a star in Japan, but not to the same level as those the Yankees secured.
The Yankees’ focus on a significant move this offseason has been on DJ LeMahieu, who is represented by the same agency as Sugano. The Yankees’ intention is to stay under the $210 luxury tax threshold, which gives them roughly $30 million, perhaps a bit more, to invest this offseason. Thus, it would be difficult to sign Sugano first without knowing how much LeMahieu would cost. The Yanks could pivot off of LeMahieu and concentrate more on upgrading their rotation, but have not given that indicator as of yet and would have to move quickly if Sugano is in their plans.
Executives interested in Sugano have stated big-market teams have a distinct advantage in landing the righty because he is used to playing for the Yankees of Japan in the Yomiuri Giants and is unlikely to want to downgrade. Yomiuri historically does not post players. But Sugano did not sign in 2011 as the top amateur in the country when the Nippon Ham Fighters won his rights out of the nominating process having stated he wanted to play for his uncle, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara. The Giants drafted Sugano the following year and because of that lost season and dedication to the organization early, Yomiuri agreed to allow Sugano to pursue his long-held major league aspirations.
Sugano won the Central League MVP in 2014, the Sawamura in 2017-18, had a down year with a back injury in 2019, but rebounded to go 14-2 with a 1.97 ERA in 2020. That he threw 137 1/3 regular season innings improves his attraction to major league clubs since none of their pitchers came close to full workloads in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because Sugano, 31, is older than Tanaka and Yu Darvish were when they joined MLB, there is not quite the same hoopla associated here with Sugano. But he is a gigantic star in Japan made even brighter by his 2017 performance in the World Baseball Classic when he held a star-laden Team USA lineup that included Nolan Arenado, Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich to one unearned run in six innings.
Evaluators see even the downside of Sugano as Hiroki Kuroda, who did not pitch in MLB until his age-33 season yet still registered seven durable, above-average campaigns that included generally excellent postseason work. Sugano does not win with an overpowering fastball, working mainly in the 90-92 mph range. His forte is diversity of stuff and pinpoint control. His current major league comp, therefore, would be Zack Greinke; just six years younger.
For the Mets, he would slot with Marcus Stroman behind ace Jacob deGrom and in front of David Peterson and either Seth Lugo or Steven Matz as the club awaits the return of Noah Syndergaard from Tommy John surgery. The Mets seem intent, if possible, to add two starters. That would allow them to return Lugo to a bullpen that already has Edwin Diaz, Trevor May, Jeurys Familia and deploys Matz as a swingman, which could be more valuable if the Mets did sign Sugano. Japanese starters mostly go once a week in the seconds strongest league in the world.
In addition, a multi-year deal for Sugano would give the Mets some future rotation protection/depth since Matz, Stroman and Syndergaard all are entering their walk years.