Kodai Senga’s ‘Unpredictable Fastball,’ Health Issues Could Factor in Cubs’ Aggressive Pitching Pursuit

The Cubs figure to be very active in free agency this winter, with their pitching pursuit making up a good chunk of Jed Hoyer’s wish list. As noted in an earlier piece about which ace(s) they should prioritize and then further contextualized with the help of additional reports, three pitchers in particular seem to be generating quite a bit more smoke than the rest at this point. One of those should be pretty obvious to those who read the headline, but we’ll discuss Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodón here as well.

The more I think about it, the more I believe the Cubs are going to try to land two big pitchers to bolster the staff. That might seem a little odd at first given how they’ve finally started to figure out the development pipeline, not to mention the trouble they got themselves into with devoting too great a percentage of the payroll to the pitching staff. However, it makes a little more sense when you start to think about it.

If the Cubs are truly intent on pursuing Kodai Senga, which certainly appears to be the case, they’d be adding someone who isn’t used to a five-man rotation. What’s more, none of their in-house starters can correctly be called workhorses. Without checking, name all the Cubs pitchers who met the minimum threshold for qualified stats?

Those who failed to name anyone are correct. The bar was set at 164 innings and Marcus Stroman led the staff with 138, followed by Justin Steele at 119 and Keegan Thompson four innings behind that. Only five Cubs managed more than 84.1 innings in a campaign marred by a spate of nagging injuries. Even with the benefit of good fortune, no one should be expecting several of those starters to add 50+ frames to their totals for next season.

What’s more, the league as a whole has moved away from innings-eaters. Only 45 pitchers in all of MLB qualified this year after just 39 threw 162 or more innings last season. The 2019 season saw 61 pitchers throw more than 163 innings, and 58 had 161 or more in 2018. The point here is that it’s not just the Cubs. Pitching continues to evolve to the point where starters rarely face a lineup three times in a game, and we see more 100 mph pitches than we do 100-pitch games now.

Out of that list of five pitchers I mentioned earlier, I think we can all agree that Jacob deGrom is an extreme longshot because he’ll either want more years than the Cubs are willing to offer or he’ll prefer teams that have spring training in Florida. The Guardians reportedly don’t want to trade Shane Bieber, or at least they’re saying that to keep his cost high, so we’ll set him aside. Even if there exists a possibility that the Cubs could trade for Shohei Ohtani, such a deal would probably take a while to unfold.

Assuming the Cubs really do want to be aggressive while also hedging their bets, it stands to reason that they’ll try to move quickly on some combination of Senga, Rodón, and/or Verlander. There’s a bit of health risk involved with the first two and the latter may be in the home stretch of his race against Father Time, but doubling up without chaining themselves to excessively long-term commitments helps to mitigate the biggest concerns.

In a recent profile of Senga for his website, Jim Allen listed command and fitness as the righty’s principle issues. Not that Senga is out of shape, mind you, just that he was shelved twice with elbow tightness — I can almost hear you cringing — and also sat for nearly a month with a positive COVID diagnosis. He got a late start last year due to calf trouble, then missed three months after an awkward fall resulted in a severe ankle sprain.

Allen also called Senga’s fastball “unpredictable,” saying it ranked 111th in called strikes out of 187 pitchers who three at least 200 heaters during the NPB season. Having an average velocity of roughly 96 mph allowed him to get away with a little wildness, though that’s something he might need to work on in MLB. The fastball got just a 50 grade on the scouting scale, while Senga’s nasty splitter got a 70 and his cutter and slider both got 60 grades.

I think some of that concern over control is a little overblown when you see that Senga has 3.4 BB/9 over the course of 11 seasons in Japan, but the injury stuff could hamper his value. If the folks at FanGraphs are correct in the estimate of a five-year deal worth $75 million ($15 million AAV), the cost is far from prohibitive. With no posting fee or qualifying offer penalties, Senga makes a lot of sense.

Rodón carries some of those same red flags on the health side, plus he’ll be more expensive in terms of the overall deal and QO penalties, which he will have because the White inexplicably declined to extend one last year. He and Senga are virtually the same age and both are entering their age-30 season, so there’s no real advantage there. Kiley McDaniel of ESPN puts Rodón at five years and $115 million ($23M AAV) while Christopher Knox of Bleacher report predicts the Cubs will land him with four years and $127 million ($31.75M AAV).

That latter figure feels a bit rich to me, but there’s value in what amounts to buying out the risk of a fifth year. Of course, you could probably do that by simply taking that first guess over one less year.

McDaniel has Verlander getting two or three years at a $43.4 million AAV that matches what Max Scherzer got with the Mets, a figure I’m not sure I can see holding true. Even with the limited timeframe, I don’t believe the Cubs would commit over $75 million to two pitchers this winter. Going for something like $37-50 million, however, is an entirely different story that I think Jed Hoyer would be happy to write.

That’s why I think Senga stands out as the Cubs’ top target in free agency, one I believe they’ll try to lock up quickly. Then they could pivot to Rodón or Verlander as a way to both shore up the staff and signal to other free agents that things are shifting on the North Side.

Ed. note: I was going to include the following story early in the piece, but then thought better of making you wade through it when it really has nothing to do with the topic. That said, it’s at least part of the reason I haven’t written anything for the last two days. I’d heard the term “rest in piss” before, but that’s literally what I did Sunday night.

My daughter and I traveled to St. Louis Sunday afternoon to attend a Teddy Swims concert, so I had booked a hotel room for the night. It was a nationwide chain and I had enough points to merit a free stay, which was nice. The place seemed clean and relatively new, plus we really just needed a place to crash because we were waking up early to head home.

I was exhausted after the concert and fell asleep immediately, but later noticed the smell of stale urine. After allaying my initial alarm at possibly having peed myself, I decided that it was just some trick my nose was playing on me or maybe the pillow just smelled funny so that I could get back to sleep. Upon waking, I smelled it more clearly and I stripped back the sheet to reveal a huge piss stain on the mattress and fitted sheet.

There’s no way in hell the housekeeping staff could have missed this, man, it was most definitely not the product of a baby’s diaper getting a little leaky. Now we wait and see what kind of response the chain provides or whether I need to out them.

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