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All the details about Shota Imanaga’s four-year, $53 million deal with Cubs

Imanaga comes with a fair amount of risk, and that’s led to a very complicated contract.

Shota Imanaga of Team Japan pitches in the second inning against Team USA during the World Baseball Classic Championship at loanDepot park on March 21, 2023 in Miami, Florida. Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

More than a full day passed between the news that Shota Imanaga was headed to the Chicago Cubs and any meaningful details as to his contract. And now we know why: It’s a deal that features all sorts of bells and whistles, reflecting the unique nature of the Japanese lefty as a free agent.

According to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, the contract will guarantee Imanaga $53 million over four years. Beyond that, however, things get complicated:

The first two years are relatively straightforward. Following the conclusion of that second season, both Chicago and Imanaga will have a decision to make. The Cubs can opt to tack three more years onto the deal, running its total to five years and $80 million. They can also opt not to, in which case Imanaga can either play out the original four-year, $53 million deal or become a free agent. The two sides will face the same choice again after year three. At the start, Imanaga’s deal includes limited no-trade protection (four teams, the identities of which are not yet known) that would expand to a full no-trade clause if the club exercises the option to extend the contract to five years. The contract also features escalators tied to both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.

All of that is a mouthful, and it’s hard to remember a contract containing more qualifications. But it’s also hard to remember a more unique free agency case than Imanaga’s. The 30-year-old comes to MLB after eight years in NPB over which posted a 2.96 ERA and averaged more than a strikeout per inning. With a fastball that boasts elite ride and a slider and splitter that earned tons of whiffs in Japan, he has the sort of stuff that a team can dream on.

He also sits in the low 90s with that fastball, and it remains an open question how his approach — and his very high fly ball rates — will transfer to the best league in the world. Add in his slight 5’10, 176-pound build and a throwing shoulder that required surgery back in the fall of 2020, and the range of outcomes here feels very, very wide. Which is how you get a contract that could pay Imanaga like anything from a back-end flier to a No. 2/3 starter. This is still well worth the risk for Chicago — the Cubs desperately needed rotation help, and this deal will be reasonable even if Imanaga pitches more like a fifth starter — while offering Imanaga both serious earning potential and the opportunity to hit the market again relatively soon if things aren’t working out.