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Everything to know about Shota Imanaga’s free agency as posting deadline nears

Imanaga has until 5 p.m. ET on Thursday to sign with a Major League team.

Despite pitchers and catchers reporting in just a few weeks’ time, a stop-and-start Hot Stove season remains in a bit of a holding pattern, as big names like Blake Snell, Josh Hader, Cody Bellinger and Jordan Montgomery try to secure the best possible deals now that the market is been freed up a bit. Luckily for those of us looking for some action, though, one prominent player is all but guaranteed to sign at some point in the next few days.

Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga’s 45-day posting window will close at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, Jan. 11. That leaves him just 72 hours or so to finalize an agreement with a Major League team, or else he’ll be headed back to Japan for another year. You might have heard Imanaga’s name bandied about among the best pitchers available this winter. But just who is he? Where is he likely to sign — or what will happen if that deadline passes without an agreement?

We’ve addressed all that and more below.

1. Just how good is he?

While Imanaga isn’t nearly on the level of countryman and WBC teammate Yoshinobu Yamamoto — hardly a criticism, given that Yamamoto might be the most talented pitcher in the world right now — he’s still a highly accomplished arm who could easily slot in as a mid-rotation starter in the Majors. We went into his scouting report in detail when he was first posted in late November, but here’s a refresher:

Imanaga isn’t Ohtani or Yamamoto — heck, he’s probably not even Snell or Montgomery — but he’s a desirable pitcher in his own right, with two All-Star Games and a 2.96 ERA over the course of eight seasons in Japan. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 24 starts last year, striking out 188 batters in 159 innings, while also helping Team Japan to the World Baseball Classic title. He boasts a riding fastball that misses bats up in the zone, plus a slider and the obligatory splitter as swing-and-miss options later in counts.

Add it all up, and that’s a pretty formidable arsenal, with three pitches that project as at least above-average. There are some questions here — the transition from NPB to the States should never be taken for granted, and at a generous 5’10 and 176 pounds, Imanaga faces some real durability concerns — but, well, that’s true of just about every other pitcher currently on the market as well.

Imanaga’s market will be somewhat limited by his age (30) and concerns about how he’ll hold up to the rigors of a big-league rotation; he doesn’t look the part of a traditional starter, and it’s unclear how his body will respond to shifting from five rest days (the traditional NPB pitching schedule) to four rest days in MLB. The stuff really seems like it’ll play, though, and there simply aren’t a ton of impact options for pitching-needy teams.

2. Which teams are in the running?

Earlier this month, a report from Jim Bowden claimed that the group of finalists for Imanaga’s services include the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, and the San Francisco Giants — teams that were on the periphery of the Yamamoto sweepstakes and are looking for a rotation upgrade without making quite the financial commitment of, say, Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery. MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, meanwhile, shared on Monday that a source told him that all signs are pointing to the Giants winning the bidding. Of the four teams above, San Francisco is the only one that is 1) clearly desperate to compete in 2024 and 2) willing to spend real money to do so. Combine that with their convenient West Coast location, and it’s easy to believe that they’re the club to beat.

3. What kind of contract will he land?

Unlike younger NPB imports — Shohei Ohtani, for example, and potentially Roki Sasaki — Imanaga has accrued enough service time to be treated like a regular free agent. As such, and given how drastically demand for pitching outpaces supply, he’s going to get paid: Earlier this winter, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Imanaga is expected to receive a nine-figure deal. A five- or six-year contract in the low nine figures would seem about right here for a pitcher that doesn’t come with the same track record as the two proven big-league arms at the top of the market but more upside than a lower-tier option like Marcus Stroman.

4. Will there be a posting fee?

Of course, whatever contract a team does wind up handing to Imanaga will come with a posting fee on top — basically, a payment to Imanaga’s Japanese team, the Yokohama BayStars, for the right to free the lefty from his pre-existing contract. Here is how the fee is calculated, broken down by total contract value:

  • Contract worth less than $25 million: 20% of contract value
  • Contract worth $25 million to $50 million: $5 million plus 17.5% of amount over $25 million
  • Contract worth more than $50 million: $9.275 million plus 15% of amount over $50 million

We’ve already seen two other international free agents receive nine-figure contracts this winter. The Los Angeles Dodgers shelled out more than $50 million in a posting fee to the Orix Buffaloes after signing Yamamoto. The Giants, meanwhile, paid the Kiwoom Heroes more than $18 million after inking Korean center fielder Jung Hoo Lee.

It’s to be determined how much the Yokohama Bay Stars will receive in exchange for posting Imanaga, though we do believe it’s fair to think that number will be closer to Lee’s $18 million mark than Yamamoto’s $50 million.

5. What happens if he doesn’t sign?

In the unlikely event that Imanaga does not sign before the deadline — he asked to be posted for a reason, and he’s clearly keen on coming to the States — he would remain with the BayStars for another season. After the 2024 campaign, he could try once more to make the jump from NPB to MLB. Again, there’s no reason to think this is going to happen, but just in case you were curious about what would happen as a hypothetical.