HomeSportsCubs working to finalize deal with Japanese free-agent pitcher Shota Imanaga: Sources

Cubs working to finalize deal with Japanese free-agent pitcher Shota Imanaga: Sources

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There is a strong sense of optimism that the Chicago Cubs will sign Shota Imanaga, league sources said Tuesday night, though there is no formal agreement in place and the two sides are still working through all the details before Thursday’s deadline for the Japanese pitcher to finalize a contract with a major-league club.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale first reported a tentative deal, identifying Imanaga’s physical in Chicago as one remaining hurdle.

The 30-year-old lefty has been one of the top starting pitchers in Japan the past eight years. And while the terms of a potential contract are not yet known, this offseason market has routinely pushed beyond financial norms, as improved technology and data have made teams more comfortable making large commitments to international players.

Imanaga’s greatest exposure to a North American audience came in the 2023 World Baseball Classic when he was chosen as Japan’s starter for the championship game against the United States. He pitched two innings, allowing a Trea Turner home run and Mike Trout double, but also striking out Paul Goldschmidt and Cedric Mullins, and retiring Mookie Betts twice. He pitched well throughout the tournament (seven strikeouts and no walks through six innings) and showed elite stuff, albeit in a small sample.

The months that followed were fairly typical of Imanaga’s career in Japan. He’s been one of the Central League’s top starters since 2016 — his rocky 2018 season was an outlier, and he quickly returned to form — and last season he led the league with 174 strikeouts and 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine. He was posted by the Yokohama DeNA BayStars on Nov. 27 and had until Thursday to choose a team before his 45-day posting window expired.

Although his availability was overshadowed by the free agency of Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shohei Ohtani, The Athletic’s Big Board ranked Imanaga as the offseason’s 12th-best free agent, putting him in between Marcus Stroman (No. 11) and Lucas Giolito (No. 15) among available starting pitchers. Based on past Japanese signings, Imanaga’s projected contract was four years, $52 million, though it had become clear in recent weeks that he would exceed that figure by a substantial margin. 

“Imanaga was not quite as dominant in 2023 as he had been in 2022; nevertheless, over the past three seasons his ERA in (Nippon Professional Baseball) has been about 38 percent better than the league average there,” Tim Britton and Aaron Gleeman wrote in November. “That’s in line with pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma before they signed in the majors.”

Imanaga is not seen as having Yamamoto’s top-of-the-rotation upside but could settle in as a reliable mid-rotation starter for the foreseeable future. He leans heavily on his low-to-mid-90s fastball, throwing it more than 50 percent of the time and using it often at the top of the zone. It doesn’t have huge velocity (typically 91-92 mph) or cause massive swing-and-miss, but he locates it well and has effectively used it to miss barrels (though he has been home run prone, which is a notable cause for concern).

When he’s not throwing fastballs, Imanaga works primarily with multiple variations of three offspeed pitches. His slider and splitfinger are go-to weapons, each generating good swing-and-miss, helping account for his large strikeout totals in Japan. Adjusting his grip to the slightly different Major League baseball could be one of Imanaga’s early challenges in spring training, but that’s not unusual for pitchers moving over from Japan. Sports Info Solutions has an extensive breakdown of all his pitches, including his less frequent curveball, cutter, and changeup (which can be lumped in with his split).

“(Fastball) has life at the top of the zone,” said one scout who evaluated Imanaga for an interested major league team. “It plays above the radar gun velocity. … Changes arm slot at times to create more sweep on the (slider). Good Split. Has the competitiveness to improvise and make adjustments in order to have more success.”

Despite some uncertainty about his big league transition, teams have been bullish on Imanaga’s potential as a mid-rotation starter. FanGraphs projects a 3.84 ERA across 28 starts, with strikeout and walk rates similar to Framber Valdez last season. He’s clearly not as heralded as Yamamoto, but Imanaga generated enough interest to create his own bidding war to exceed initial contractual expectations.

With the Cubs, he’ll slot into a rotation that already has Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Jameson Taillon and an emerging group of younger pitchers. The Cubs needed to replace Marcus Stroman once he opted out of the final year of his contract, and Jed Hoyer’s front office still needs to make substantial improvements to a team that missed the playoffs by one game last season. The flurry of moves expected after the Cubs hired Craig Counsell and fired manager David Ross hasn’t happened yet. In the middle of January, it feels like their offseason is only getting started.

(Top photo: Yuki Taguchi / WBCI / MLB Photos via Getty Images)



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