Yankees have reportedly ‘checked in’ on international free agent to fill out their rotation

Baseball: World Baseball Classic - Championship-Japan vs USA, shota imanaga, yankees
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According to Jon Heyman on his most recent live stream on Bleacher Report, the Yankees have reportedly checked in on left-handed pitcher Shota Imanaga. The 30-year-old southpaw is another international free agent in this year’s class, and while Yoshinobu Yamamoto has taken most of the spotlight, he’s also generated a robust market. Teams like the Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs have reported interest in his services, and he was the winning pitcher for Japan in the deciding game of the World Baseball Classic.

Imanaga posted a 2.80 ERA across 22 starts, striking out a league-leading 29.2% of batters faced, and he could be a nice middle-of-the-rotation arm if the Yankees fail to secure Yamamoto’s services

Yankees Could Pivot To Another International Free Agent

Baseball: World Baseball Classic - Championship-Japan vs USA
Mar 21, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Japan starting pitcher Shota Imanaga (21) pitches against the USA in the first inning at LoanDepot Park. Mandatory Credit: Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

This past season was incredible for the left-hander, and he has an enticing pitch mix that could yield plenty of swings and misses in the United States. He relies on his four-seamer, which sits 91-92 on the radar gun but has plenty of vertical ride alongside a lower-slot release that allows it to play up in the zone. It’s a true strikeout pitch that mirrors the one thrown by someone the Yankees would be familiar with, and that’s Nestor Cortes, who relies on vertical movement and a lower-slot to overcome his underwhelming velocity.

High-carry fastballs are prominent in the Yankees’ organization, as at the Major League level they have Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, and Nestor Cortes who rely on those kinds of four-seamers in the rotation to get swings-and-misses. Another prominent pitch is the sweeper, which was Imanaga’s secondary offering this past season and has become a real weapon for him that can generate plenty of horizontal movement. His changeup serves as another secondary offering in his arsenal with plenty of vertical separation off of his fastball, making it an excellent pitch for changing eye levels.

We’ve also seen a cutter and curveball mixed in as well, and the overall arsenal has consistently yielded strong results over in Japan. Command is also a plus tool for Imanaga, as he’s uber-aggressive in the zone, as he’s walked no more than 5.5% of batters over the past three seasons, and this past year walked 4% of his opponents. That in-zone aggression can also get him in trouble as he tends to leak pitches over the heart of the plate and get crushed, allowing a 1.03 HR/9 in a run environment where home runs are less common.

There are concerns about how the home run issues will translate over to the United States, and those concerns become greater when accounting for the difference in NPB and MLB baseballs. Kodai Senga, the runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year in 2023, openly discussed the struggles that came with adjusting to the new baseball, but there is hope that Imanaga can adjust. The World Baseball Classic used the Rawlings ball, which is used by MLB, and as stated earlier Imanaga led the tournament in Stuff+ and allowed just two runs across six innings with seven strikeouts and zero walks.

Dubbed the ‘Throwing Philosopher’, there’s a lot of upside in Imanaga’s profile, and the Yankees should certainly have interest in him if they don’t land Yamamoto. Steamer projects him for a 121 ERA+ in 2024, but fans will need to be patient with him early on. The aforementioned Kodai Senga had a 4.15 ERA and 5.37 FIP through April, allowing 5 HRs and walking 18 batters in just 26 innings of work. While walks remained an issue (10.2%), Senga would cut his HR/9 rate down by nearly an entire homer per nine and post a sparkling 2.76 ERA after getting used to the newer ball.

Betting on a pitcher with excellent stuff is usually a good process, and given his success in Japan, plenty of teams will look to secure his services. The Yankees are occupied with the Yamamoto sweepstakes, but if they don’t come out victorious, Imanaga could be their next pivot option. His contract could end up around the one given to Senga (5 years, $75 million), but it’s also possible that the market causes that number to rise a bit more.

As with any international free agent, there are concerns about how those strengths will translate in the Majors, but this could be a great middle-of-the-rotation option for the Yankees.

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