Why Japanese ace Kodai Senga would be a smart signing for Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays are one of a handful of teams interested in signing Japanese star pitcher Kodai Senga. (Getty Images)
The Toronto Blue Jays are one of a handful of teams interested in signing Japanese star pitcher Kodai Senga. (Getty Images)

With free agent Ross Stripling poised to sign elsewhere this offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays must locate his eventual replacement, which could come via the international market.

As baseball fans await the franchise’s first free agent signing, many have speculated about which starting pitchers the front office may target over the winter. While that list will likely feature numerous hurlers, one of them is reportedly Kodai Senga, according to MLB reporter Jon Morosi.

Morosi notes that the Blue Jays — along with the Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers — are expected to pursue the Japanese star as he attempts to transition to North America. It’s also possible that other teams could be involved, as well.

Senga, a three-time Nipon Professional Baseball All-Star, has been regarded as one of the top pitchers in Japan over the last several seasons. The 29-year-old, who will turn 30 in January, enjoyed his breakout party during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where he posted a 0.82 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 11.0 innings.

Japan ultimately fell to the USA in the semi-final, but it wasn’t all for naught, with Senga’s dominance introducing him to the rest of the international baseball community. And excitement over the right-hander has only grown since.

While there won’t be a shortage of potential suitors, the Blue Jays are among the teams that would be an ideal match for Senga. As an organization looking to shore up its starting rotation, adding the five-time Japan Series winner (Japan’s World Series) to the mix would certainly address that concern.

The 6-foot hurler profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation arm and would pair nicely with Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and José Berríos. That could become one of the top units in the majors if everyone stays healthy.

And unlike fellow Japanese star Masataka Yoshida, Senga isn’t subject to MLB’s posting system as he’s already played at least nine professional seasons, making him eligible for international free agency. So any team he signs with won’t have to pay a posting fee to his previous employer, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Senga originally signed a five-year extension with Fukuoka last December, though it included an opt-out clause after the first season, which he’s since triggered. Now, less than a year later, the veteran righty hopes to maximize his current value while taking his talents overseas.

It also helps that the two-time Gold Glove winner is coming off one of the top performances of his 11-year career, where he performed to a 1.89 ERA and a 2.76 FIP across 23 starts in 148.0 innings. He also recorded a complete game, the 11th of his career.

Senga would add plenty of swing-and-miss to Toronto’s pitching staff as he racked up 159 punchouts this past season, resulting in a 27.4 percent strikeout rate. He also doesn’t allow a concerning amount of walks, evidenced by his 8.6 percent walk rate.

The two-time Pacific League strikeout leader (2019, 2020) was also worth 4.9 WAR in 2022, fifth-highest among qualified NPB starters.

For his career, Senga has logged 1,340.2 innings over 11 seasons with the Hawks from 2012-2022, posting a 2.42 ERA with a 27.3 percent strikeout rate and a 9.4 percent walk rate. He also compiled five complete-game shutouts, with two occurring in 2019.

There is always skepticism whenever someone attempts to convert from the NPB or KBO to MLB, which likely won’t change for Senga. And though this route hasn’t been favourable to the Blue Jays lately, especially after Shun Yamaguchi struggled to an 8.06 ERA in 2020, there is reason to believe that history won’t repeat itself this time.

Senga features a well-respected six-pitch arsenal, headlined by his high-90s fastball, which can reach triple digits. That alone should surprise plenty of big-league hitters. His repertoire also includes two different sliders - one hard and the other a tad slower but featuring increased break.

When all three pitches are tunnelled effectively, the hard-throwing righty can disguise his breaking balls, preventing the opposition from sitting on either of them.

But as impressive as Senga’s fastball and sliders are, no other pitch has generated more hype than his splitter — or forkball, as it’s often referred to — nicknamed the “Ghost Fork.” Yes, it does tend to disappear off the plate.

It’s a pitch that Gausman, who also possesses a talented splitter, would likely become obsessed with learning about during his off days. Just imagine what it’d be like to be a fly on the wall in those bullpen sessions.

The 2020 Olympic gold medal winner rounds out his arsenal with a two-seamer and curveball, though neither is seen as a critical weapon as both were utilized around five percent in 2022.

Still, with four quality pitches at his disposal, Senga appears poised to make a seamless transition to the majors. A few adjustments will likely be required early on, just as they were for many others that came before him, but he has the tools to thrive against the best hitters in the sport.

The Blue Jays, however, would need to monitor Senga’s workload in 2023. Though he hasn’t suffered any serious arm injuries, minor ailments and a COVID stint have limited him to 148.0 innings or fewer since 2020.

Senga’s highest innings total came in 2019 when he tossed 180.1. But for someone accustomed to pitching every sixth day rather than every fifth, changing that usage could place additional stress on his body, potentially increasing the risk of injury. At his age, that’s usually something most teams want to avoid at all costs.

One way to manage Senga’s workload could be shifting him to the bullpen down the stretch, allowing him to serve as a multi-inning reliever. That way, the team could better control who he faces and his pitch count.

Working out of the bullpen is also something he experimented with early on in Japan. He recorded 20 holds and a pair of saves with the Hawks from 2013-14, finishing 17 of those contests. That experience could be valuable in the playoffs if the right opportunity presents itself.

Toronto’s pitching staff will become less versatile if — and when — Stripling departs via free agency. If Senga replaces him, though, his arrival could help limit that loss while also providing stability in the middle of the rotation.

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