Off-season Stuff: Shintaro Fujinami and Kodai Senga

Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

The free agency market is full with starting pitchers. Some of them will be out-of-Diamondbacks-budget, like Justin Verlander and Jacob DeGrom, others will either look for a couple of years guaranteed (Zach Davies) or will take a one-year contract and look for a bounce-back possibility (Zach Davies last year). I will not try to assess the available starting pitchers.

The free agency is not full with good relievers, although we were able to highlight some interesting options.

In this article I will present two more exotic players: from the Japanese NPB.

Shintaro Fujinami (RHP, born 04/12/94)

What happened to Shintaro Fujinami? That question could be posed now, but was also made at the beginning of this year in a YouTube video.

Fujinami was named as the pitching rival of Shohei Ohtani and both battled for being the most prestigious pick of the 2012 NPB draft, that is normally held in autumn. In theory you could say that Fujinami won that battle as he was picked by 4 different teams (there is no draft order in the NPB draft, but picks are won by lottery), while Ohtani was only picked by the Nippon Ham Fighters, as most teams feared Ohtani would leave for the US.

Both pitchers got off to a hot start, as they immediately made their debuts in the NPB the following season, but where Ohtani’s career took off in a stealth flight, Fujinami’s stalled after the 2016 season.

In all honesty and despite being an All Star in the past, from the outside it looks like Fujinami has never seemed to be able to translate the hype around his prospect status to the NPB. While the H9 has always fluctuated between 7.8 and 8.3 (unspectacular but not necessarily problematic), he was never much of a pitcher with great control. After a SO/BB ratio between 2.50 and 2.90 the first 4 years of his career, in 2016 he completely lost control and exchanged the strikeouts for walks. Result: Fujinami lost his starting job and eventually ended on the development sites and team.

In 2022 Fujinami returned to the main stage. His days as a starter seem to be over, but as a pitcher out of the bullpen he regained somewhat of his success, pitching to a 3.38 ERA in 66.2 innings, with a 1.185 WHIP and a 3.10 SO/BB ratio, but didn’t contribute in any holds or saves.

With a lack of recent success and Fujinami only 1 year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent in Japan, it is no surprise his team granted the request of the player to post him for MLB teams. This means that any team who signs him will have to pay a proportional fee (a percentage of the agreed contract) to the Hanshin Tigers. MLB teams will only have 30 days to negotiate a contract.

Fujinami has a lack of recent success, so what a team like the Diamondbacks might be looking for in the right-hander is the potent fastball, that has touched 100 mph, and an arsenal of secondary pitches. If that fastball rides and the control doesn’t disappear, Fujinama could become an interesting weapon and flame thrower in the Diamondbacks bullpen and it really doesn’t hurt to offer the player a two-year guaranteed contract. Unrealistic? While they are two completely different players, just take a look at the basic stats of Hirano’s final season in the NPB and Fujinama’s 2022 and make a quick assessment yourself.

That got Yoshi a 2-year $6,000,000 contract with the Diamondbacks, but we have to add that Hirano was an established reliever in the NPB for years and had been deployed in higher leverage situations, although he was also a lot older than Fujinami now. I think a 2-year guaranteed contract makes sense for Fujinami, but given his lack of recent success and the posting fee I think he’d have to settle for less AAV. With the necessary bullpen overhaul, the Diamondbacks could add a flame thrower to the team for a relatively low annual fee unless the scarce reliever free agency market drives the price up a bit.

Kodai Senga (RHP, 01/30/93)

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have never posted a player to the MLB and has repeatedly denied Senga’s requests ever since 2019 when the player asked the club for the first time to allow him to move to the MLB.

Unlike Fujinami, Senga had to wait for his 9 years to be over to become an unrestricted free agent, something he achieved via an opt-out in the extension he signed a year ago with the Hawks.

The appeal here is obviously that there is no posting fee attached to the player, but there is more to it as FanGraphs has Senga listed on their international prospects list with a 50 FV and a report from around a year ago:

“Senga has incredible arm strength and exploding fastball movement. He also throws enough strikes to start and has four pitches, but neither breaking ball (a low-90s cutter and a low-80s slider) has bat-missing action. His splitter does, though, and the fallback option for Senga is high-leverage relief in which he leans on his fastball and splitter.” - FanGraphs in 2021 on Kodai Senga

Sounds like a familiar pitcher?

“But Senga’s ability to sustain big velo under a starter’s workload will probably convince some teams that he can start in the big leagues, and those are the ones likely to offer him the most money.” - FanGraphs in 2021 on Kodai Senga

Several reports mention the Cubs as one of the bigger teams to be interested in signing Senga and with their starting pitcher needs they look like a logical forerunner. Other reports also mention the Boston Red Sox.

Teams in need of starting pitching may be the favourites to land Senga, but that doesn’t necessarily exclude the Diamondbacks. The Snakes might be looking to land another guy that is able to function as a mid-rotation starter where the right-hander seems fit to slide in and what should probably be expected, if we try to compare him with a (somewhat randomly taken) peer.

Just like Maeda in 2015, Senga will be coming off one of his best seasons in the NPB, which is a performance he has been able to replicate from 2021 after 3 previous years of some wilder pitching where the pitcher allowed more walks and homeruns as a trade-off against more strikeouts. Last season’s 1.91 ERA for Senga is great, but the 3.1 BB9 might be a bigger problem.

Maeda’s HR9 and BB9 increased in the MLB (just like the SO9), which doesn’t bode that well for Senga, whose NPB BB9 is already on MLB league average starting pitching. If we say Senga’s numbers on those parts increase too, we could be talking about some Japanese version of Zack Godley performance wise. At best the 2017 version, at worst...well, let’s hope he would transition well into a Hirano-like bullpen role if that happens.

If we look at references in financial terms, we have Maeda as well on one side. He was 3 years younger than Senga when he signed a 8-year $25,000,000 heavily incentive laden contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers (and they reportedly paid a fee to his team of around $20MM), but Maeda came off a season in which he was chosen as the best pitcher in the NPB. That contract, according to Spotrac, will realistically end with total earnings of somewhere between $46,000,000 and $50,000,000 next year.

On the other hand we have Miles Mikolas who pitched terrifically in the NPB for 3 seasons, which earned him a 2-year $15,500,000 contract.

My guess is that somewhere between $6MM and $7MM lies the magic number for Senga’s AAV but it might get dampened somewhat by medical concerns as Japan’s 2021 Gold medallist has had problems to stay healthy throughout his entire career. Kenda just opted out of a contract that guaranteed him $25MM over 5 years with certain raises that, if I interpret it correctly, could have given him a total of close to $40MM, so he will certainly try and top those. That means a team will have to be very certain that he can replicate his success here. Personally, considering it all, I don’t see the Diamondbacks buying into Senga, but maybe you have a different opinion.

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