Minnesota’s Best Sonny Gray Replacement May Be Playing Overseas

Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins enter free agency with some key rotation pieces looking for new contracts. Sonny Gray’s AL Cy Young finalist-caliber season will earn him a substantial new deal, one that may be too rich for a risk-averse front office. Experts project Gray to earn a three-year, $64 million or higher contract this offseason.

Jake Odorizzi’s one-year, $17.8 million contract in 2020 was the priciest pitcher contract Thad Levine and Derek Falvey have signed. They also inked Michael Pineda to a two-year, $20 million contract that same offseason. Besides Pablo López, who signed a four-year extension worth $73.5 million in April, the Twins don’t typically sign pitchers to big contracts. And López became one of the most skilled starters in the MLB. His ~$18 million AAV is a steal for the Twins.

Despite Gray’s apparent willingness to return, it may not matter. The same could be true for Kenta Maeda (35 years old), Tyler Mahle (29 but out for next season), and Dallas Keuchel (35). All three of them join Gray as free agents, and they may be too old for the Twins to consider bringing back. In Mahle’s case, his injury puts his future into question. He’d need a two-year contract as he rehabs his Tommy John surgery, though they did the same thing with Pineda.

Chris Paddack and Louie Varland are in-house replacements for Gray. Both could be effective starters next season, but they carry some risk. Paddack hasn’t made consistent quality starts since 2020. He had a three-start stretch in April-May of 2022 where he only gave up four earned runs in 16 innings (2.25 ERA), though.

Varland’s young arm is still volatile. His four-seamer earned strikes on 74.5% of his pitches (97th percentile), but opposing batters crushed his changeup and slider. Varland may need more time to develop, or he may even stay in the bullpen because he was effective there in the playoffs.

There are many established starters in this year’s free-agent class. Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, and Jordan Montgomery coming off a World Series win highlight the non-Shohei Ohtani names. They’re all likely to receive deals above $120 million, with AAVs of at least $24 million. However, it’s an aging group beyond them.

Seth Lugo looked nice in the San Diego Padres rotation after working primarily as a reliever before that. Unfortunately, he’s 34. Marcus Stroman’s sinker-heavy approach works, but he’s 33. Eduardo Rodriguez is only 31, but some writers ($) are speculating he’ll return to the Tigers for more money after declining their qualifying offer. James Paxton is an intriguing budget option. His stuff seemed to be mostly intact during his abbreviated 96 innings with the Boston Red Sox over the summer.

But Gray’s best replacement may be playing overseas.

The Twins don’t have a history with the posting system in place for Nippon Professional Baseball or the Korean Baseball Organization. Large-market teams like the New York Yankees and Mets are typically the most prominent teams that sign Japanese and Korean players.

However, the new front office has been aggressive and surprised the league before. For example, they signed Carlos Correa in back-to-back seasons.

Many experts consider Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who just pitched a complete game in the Japan Series (NPB World Series equivalent), the top prize on the international market. He’s expected to sign a deal worth north of $200 million. Therefore, the Twins are unlikely to sign him.

Instead, Shota Imanaga may be Gray’s best replacement. We don’t know the specifics of his potential MLB contract yet, but there’s a chance it’s for less than $20 million. Perhaps as low as the $15 million Kodai Senga signed with the Mets last offseason. Senga struck out 202 batters in 166.1 innings and earned a 2.98 ERA (142 ERA+).

Imanaga is 30 years old. He just posted a 2.66 ERA in 159 innings in the NPB, striking out 188 batters. He has a career 3.18 ERA in the NPB. His stuff may not be that of a frontline starter, but it’s certainly that of at least a back-of-rotation pitcher. Like Paxton, Imanaga likes to pump four-seamers up and inside to essentially jam batters. He sits around 94 mph on the pitch, and its high active spin is said to give him plenty of ride.

Here he is in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) doing just that against Mike Trout:

Again, Imanaga throws his four-seamer upstairs for a whiff, this time against Kyle Schwarber. It’s the basis of his north-south approach:

Imanaga pairs his solid four-seamer with a splitter, curveball, and a slider that he throws in two different ways. His splitter lives down in the zone or below it, making it a nice chase pitch. He used it here against an aggressive J.T. Realmuto in the same game against Trout and Schwarber.

Earlier in the at-bat, Realmuto swung at a first-pitch four-seamer and barely resisted going around on a splitter that was way outside. Aware that Realmuto wanted to hit his fastball, Imanaga perfectly places a splitter that would’ve fallen for a called strike in addition to getting Realmuto to go just enough to get a whiff:

These two pitches in addition to his slider make him appear somewhat like a left-handed Joe Ryan. I want to be careful with that comparison, but Imanaga gets incredible amounts of induced vertical break while Ryan has a super flat approach, but both are proficient at generating whiffs up in the zone while throwing splitters below it.

Like Ryan, Imanaga throws his slider in two different ways. Sometimes he aims for more vertical depth and throws a slider. Other times, he wants more horizontal movement with a sweeper. Unlike Ryan, Imanaga mixes in a cutter and a curveball.

Imanga has a loopy curveball, which he throws between 74 and 76 mph. He left it up a bit too much against team USA in the WBC, as he did twice here against Tim Anderson:

Even when Anderson was on his front foot, he was able to smack it up the gap for a base hit. Getting that pitch lower and further away could’ve made it tougher to make contact with.

Regardless, every team should take a shot at Imanaga’s fairly deep repertoire and respectable stuff. Any team would have to consider his salary demands, especially because there’s a posting fee that MLB teams must pay to the player’s former team in addition to the player’s salary. However, the Twins could be in play if that number is at or below $15 million AAV.

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