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Report: Cubs swoop in to land Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga

Less than 24 hours ago, it looked like Imanaga was destined to be a Giant. But things change quickly in free agency, and the Cubs finally have their much-needed rotation upgrade.

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

Less than 24 hours ago, it looked like Shota Imanaga was destined for the San Francisco Giants. But if there’s one thing this offseason has taught us, it’s that things can change awfully fast in free agency — and it turns out that Imanaga will be headed to the North Side of Chicago. Per a report from USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the Japanese lefty has agreed to a deal with the Chicago Cubs.

We’re still waiting for exact word on the terms of this deal, but the best current estimates put it at around $15 million a year — two years and around $30 million guaranteed, with various player and team options and performance escalators that could take it all the way up toward $80 million.

The competition for Imanaga’s services had ratcheted up considerably in recent days — the 30-year-old’s 45-day posting window was coming to a close, meaning he had until 5 p.m. ET on Thursday to reach an agreement with an MLB team or be sent back to Japan for another year. Given the dearth of compelling starting pitching options on the market, most of the teams who missed out on the Yoshinobu Yamamoto sweepstakes were rumored to be in on Imanaga in some way or another. On Monday evening, a source told MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand that “it’s all pointing” to Imanaga signing with the Giants; but San Francisco seemed to lose interest over the last day or so, and Chicago saw that window of opportunity and pounced.

Their reward is an awfully enticing pitcher — one who may not come with the upside of Yamamoto, but who figures to help the Cubs’ rotation nonetheless. Imanaga comes to MLB after eight years in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, widely regarded as the world’s second-best league. Across those eight seasons, the lefty pitched to a 2.96 ERA with two All-Star appearances and more than a strikeout per inning. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 24 starts last year, striking out 188 batters in 159 innings while also helping Team Japan take home the World Baseball Classic.

We went over Imanaga’s scouting report in more detail here, but here’s the skinny for the uninitiated: He sports a low-90s fastball that can occasionally touch 94 and 95 and shows great riding action, allowing him to miss bats with it up and out of the strike zone. That pitch is Imanaga’s bread and butter, the one from which everything else flows. But it’s hardly the end of his arsenal, as he also boasts a slider that generated a whiff rate near 40% in 2023 — for context, that would have ranked him ahead of the likes of Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw, among others — and the sort of splitter we’ve come to expect from Japanese imports in recent years.

So that’s three pitches that project to be at least above average in the Majors, and Imanaga’s minuscule 2.4 career BB/9 suggests that he has solid command as well. That sounds an awful lot like a solid mid-rotation starter, and that’s clearly what the Cubs are hoping for — and exactly what they need as they hope to vault themselves into real contention in the National League.

Chicago has the makings of a very solid offense — especially if they consummate their long-rumored reunion with Cody Bellinger — but their hopes of an NL Central title this year hinged on fleshing out what was a rather thin rotation. Justin Steele was one of the breakout stars of the 2023 season, and Kyle Hendricks is Mr. Reliable, but beyond those two were Javier Assad, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Wicks, Hayden Wesneski and a slew of promising but unproven youngsters. There’s a good deal of talent in that list, but there’s not a lot in the way of certainty — and Chicago needed to add innings as much as they needed upside.

Just how much of a workhorse Imanaga can be is something of an open question; he doesn’t exactly look the part at 5’10, 176 pounds, he’s never thrown more than 170 innings in a season and he’s averaged about 155 frames over the last three years while working on Japan’s every-sixth-day pitching schedule. We’ll see how well he holds up over the long haul, as well as how his stuff translates — and how his extreme fly ball tendencies play once the wind starts blowing out at Wrigley in the warm summer months. But he has legitimate No. 2/3 upside, a nice fit behind Steele and Hendricks, and he won’t come with the same level of commitment that Snell or Montgomery would. Plus, even if he tops out as something closer to a No. 4, well, $15 million a year is just about the going rate for those right now. After a worryingly sleepy start to the offseason, this is some good work for the Cubs, a player who won’t break the bank but who comes with more upside than Marcus Stroman and the other lower-tier pitching options.