HomeTrending MLB NewsCubs to Sign Shōta Imanaga

Cubs to Sign Shōta Imanaga

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Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

With one game to win and the world championship on the line, Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama called on left-hander Shōta Imanaga to start the decisive game of the World Baseball Classic. Availability and pitch count obviously limited Kuriyama’s options, but still, it’s quite an honor, considering Japan’s pitching staff also included Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and wunderkind Roki Sasaki.

The Cubs must have been impressed, because on Monday night Bob Nightengale reported that Chicago had reached an agreement with the two-time NPB All-Star. Imanaga, who had previously been linked with the Giants, will make at least $30 million over two years, with options and incentives that could bring the total value of the deal to $80 million over a longer (but still as-yet-unspecified) term. Jon Heyman called the deal “complicated.”

However much Imanaga’s contract will end up confounding the bookkeepers, it won’t be official until he passes a physical. That must be completed before Imanaga’s posting window expires Thursday afternoon.

Last week, I noted that while the Cubs had made the splashiest pre-Ohtani move of the offseason by smuggling Craig Counsell out of Milwaukee under the gas tank of an Isetta bubble car, Jed Hoyer’s outfit had been quiet since. In order to mount a credible challenge for the NL Central, the Cubs needed to replace the outgoing Jeimer Candelario, Marcus Stroman, and Cody Bellinger, add a first baseman, and probably pick up another starting pitcher besides.

This is a very good start, both in terms of publicity and production.

The 30-year-old lefty was no. 12 on our Top 50 Free Agents list, one spot behind Stroman. Even apart from the WBC, Imanaga had an impressive final year in Japan, with a 2.80 ERA, 174 strikeouts, and 24 walks over 148 innings in 22 Central League starts.

At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, Imanaga comes with similar questions about his physicality as Yamamoto, but Imanaga’s age and lack of upper-level fastball velocity (92 mph) explain why Yamamoto ended up being guaranteed about 10 times as much money.

Imanaga has been a front-line starter in Japan for more than half a decade now, and is coming off five straight seasons with an ERA of 3.23 or less. That and his international success paint a pretty compelling statistical track record, but he presents an unusual body type for a mid-rotation MLB starter. Imanaga is short enough to play Tom Cruise’s love interest with some clever camerawork. Can a left-handed pitcher that size hold up to an MLB starter’s workload?

“Sure, Bobby Shantz did,” I thought to myself at first. Obviously we’re looking for a more contemporary comparison. Listed dimensions for athletes can be a little imprecise, but in the Wild Card era, 14 left-handed starters listed at under 6-foot have thrown 150 or more innings in a season. This is far enough in the past that Fernando Valenzuela shows up on the list, but ironically that’s a good place to start: A plus athlete who generated power from an unusual delivery.

The short answer is that it’s possible, if the pitcher in question is either a good athlete or a Houston Astro. (Mike Hampton is the most prolific short lefty, and Wandy Rodriguez and Framber Valdez also make the list.)

Imanaga is sufficiently athletic to make it work; he’s bendy and gets good leg drive. He employs a Johnny Cueto-style hesitation move at the top of his leg kick, and while the two could not look any more different physically, if you want a good example of a short pitcher with a strong lower half who dominated over a huge workload despite lacking ideal velo, Cueto is an obvious example.

Imanaga’s best secondary pitch is a low-80s slider; he also throws a changeup and a slow curve. In their matchup at the WBC, Trout doubled off the curveball, though it was a Texas Leaguer that Trout legged out rather than a scalding line drive off the wall. Having a pitch that slow will help Imanaga keep hitters off his low-90s fastball, but the curveball might be so slow it’s easily identifiable out of his hand.

But Imanaga’s best attribute is not his stuff, but his command, which is tremendous. By mixing and locating, Imanaga was able to induce not just weak contact, which you might expect from a finesse left-hander, but impressive strikeout numbers as well.

Assuming that Imanaga can hold up to the rigors of a full MLB workload, the biggest outstanding question is what kind of contact he’ll allow. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a short pitcher with a low release who doesn’t throw a sinker or splitter (Imanaga must’ve been the only guy on Team Japan who didn’t throw a plus-plus splitter), he allows a lot of contact in the air.

Eric Longenhagen pointed this out in his Top 50 writeup: Imanaga’s 8.3% HR/FB ratio looks tame by MLB standards, but the HR/FB rate in Japan is about half what it is on this side of the Pacific. And while NPB is more fly ball-prone than MLB in general, Imanaga’s 58% fly ball rate was still almost 30% higher than league average. Even adjusting for that, we can expect Imanaga to be one of the most fly ball-prone starters in baseball.

That obviously reduces the benefits of playing in front of the Dansby SwansonNico Hoerner double play combination… and I can see by the looks on your faces that you’re remembering where the Cubs play their home games.

How big a problem will that be? There’s no way to know until we see Imanaga go through the league a couple times. But assuming a guaranteed salary of $15 million a year over two years, that’s an acceptable risk. Getting any more certainty — Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray before he signed — would’ve cost nearly twice as much money over as much as three times the contract length. It’s an acceptable risk, if this is merely the first of a series of big free agent signings.

Assuming a contract AAV of about $15 million for tax purposes, the Imanaga signing leaves the Cubs with a little over $35 million to spend before they even hit the lowest competitive balance tax threshold. That’s enough space to sign a first baseman, maybe even enough to also get one of the remaining top 10 free agents if they time the market right. And if the Cubs are willing to pay just a little bit in tax, there’s enough talent left on the market to close up those remaining roster holes with ease.

There’s still a long way to go before the Cubs return to their previous status as easy NL Central favorites, but this is a good start.

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