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The Rockies should seize upon their last chance to sign an NPB pitcher

Colorado Rockies news and links for Thursday, January 11th, 2024

This afternoon will be the final deadline for Major League Baseball teams to sign talent that has entered the posting system from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball or South Korea’s Korea Baseball Organization. As the deadline draws ever nearer, most of the biggest names have been taken off the board. Many of them were signed by the Colorado Rockies’ division rivals in the National League West.

Right-handed pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes—the biggest name of the posting period—was signed to a 12-year, $325 million contract by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers also paid a $51 million fee to his NPB team in order to reunite Yamamoto with his former Samurai Japan teammate Shohei Ohtani. Yamamoto is just 25-years-old and has never thrown a MLB pitch, but his illustrious seven-year career in Japan full of awards and accolades led the Dodgers to open the vaults even further for him.

The Chicago Cubs had been extremely quiet so far this offseason, being one of just three remaining teams who had yet to spend a single dollar on a free agent. That all changed when they signed Yokohama DeNA Baystars left-handed pitcher Shota Imanaga to a “very complicated” contract earlier this week. The 30-year-old Imanaga—nicknamed “the Throwing Philosopher”—and his 3.18 ERA over eight seasons with the Baystars will likely translate into a strong contributor in the Cubs’ rotation.

The San Diego Padres signed two pitchers to bolster their bullpen after several big name departures such as Josh Hader. Five-time NPB All-Star Yuki Matsui of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles led the Pacific League in saves three different seasons and slots in as the Padres’ potential closer. 24-year-old Woo-suk Go of the KBO’s LG Twins could also look to compete for that role. The right-handed reliever is just one year removed from a 42-save, 1.48 ERA season.

Although not a pitcher, the San Francisco Giants also signed a big name international free agent. 25-year-old Korean MVP Jung-hoo Lee from the Kiwoom Heroes inked a six-year, $113 million deal to roam the outfield at Oracle Park. The Giants also made an effort to sign Yamamoto and Imanaga.

Any of these players could have made a dazzling addition to a Colorado Rockies team coming off their worst season in franchise history. The Rockies are once again desperate for pitching, but rarely point their eyes eastward when it comes to scouting and free agency. Given their lasting aversion to splashy contracts for free agent pitching—despite more than twenty years having passed since the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle deals—the Dodgers’ spending spree priced the Rockies out of the superstar Yamamoto, if they were ever in the hunt at all. Imanaga was also likely out of the Rockies’ price range as well though his contract shook out at a fairly reasonable four years and $53 million with the option to be extended to five years and $80 million.

However, the Padres signed Woo-suk Go and Yuki Matsui to extremely affordable deals. Matsui was signed to a five-year, $28 million contract while Woo-suk Go was signed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract.

For the Rockies, the last man standing of the posting period also comes at an affordable price and they should jump at the opportunity to obtain his services.

While the Rockies did sign right-handed pitcher Dakota Hudson to a one-year deal last week, starting pitching depth has remained an issue over the last several seasons and there are still holes both in the rotation and depth heading into 2024.

Right-handed pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters is one of the last remaining NPB players awaiting a contract before today’s deadline, and rumor has it the Rockies might be interested. If they are, it would mark an encouraging departure from the Rockies’ standard operating procedure when it comes to international scouting. If the Rockies successfully sign Uwasawa, it could help the Rockies expand into the region more when it comes to both scouting and free agency.

Uwasawa applied for posting after a very successful 2023 campaign in which he was named an All-Star for a third time. Over 24 appearances and 170 innings he notched an ERA of 2.96 with 124 strikeouts to 41 walks. He has been pitching for Hokkaido since 2014 and has accumulated a career ERA of 3.19 over 173 career appearances and 50 starts.

A quality innings eater, Uwasawa could easily slot into the back end of a rotation like that of the Rockies. Much like Dakota Hudson, he is also a hilariously good match for the kind of pitchers this organization loves: a soft-tossing ground ball specialist.

Uwasawa throws a sinking fastball with heavy vertical movement and high spin. According to Eno Sarris of the Athletic, his vertical movement and spin would rank in the top 5-10% of MLB pitchers. The pitch averages 90.5 mph but can max out at 95 mph, but the deception in his delivery and excellent command helps balance things out.

In addition to his fastball, Uwasawa has an extremely deep bag of tricks to reach into. He throws as many as seven different pitches in his arsenal in addition to his four-seam fastball. He throws a sinker, a splitter, a cutter, a changeup, a curveball, a slider, and a sweeper. His splitter, cutter, and curveball all have ground ball rates well over 50% and his pitches exhibit solid shape, movement, and a mix of velocities.

Daniel Brim of Dodgers Digest put it best, “Uwasawa is the type of pitcher who would throw the kitchen sink from the mound if he was allowed to.”

After dealing with an extreme amount of injuries to their rotation last season, the Rockies should also find Uwasawa’s durability appealing. Since 2018 he has pitched at least 100 innings in all but two years—including the shortened 2020 season—and he’s pitched over 150 innings in each of his last three campaigns.

Time is ticking, but the Rockies should seize upon this opportunity to bring in a pitcher from Japan for the first time since Mac Suzuki in 2001 and Masato Yoshii—Uwasawa’s pitching coach in the 2023 World Baseball Classic—in 2000. If they are successful at signing Uwasawa, the Rockies would have a low-risk, high-reward back-end starter who would reinforce a battered rotation in the short term and potentially change how the Rockies operate overseas in the long term.

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Update (1/12/2024): After several hours of radio silence following the end of the posting deadline, the Rockies have failed to capitalize on the opportunity. Naoyuki Uwasawa has signed a minor league contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and has been granted an invitation to spring training.

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