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Orioles free agent target: Kodai Senga

Does signing a top pitcher from Nippon Professional Baseball League spark your interest?

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United States v Japan - Baseball Gold Medal Game - Olympics: Day 15
Kodai Senga in the Olympics in 2021
Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

The talk about Birdland so far this offseason has been about this so-called liftoff. What does liftoff look like? How much money will they spend? How big of a splash are the Orioles willing to make in their quest to improve?

Only Mike Elias knows the answer to those questions, but one thing we all know is that the Orioles need pitching. They had some nice surprises last year but they need to infuse the roster with talent. And what better way than with Japanese pitching star Kodai Senga?

If you Google Senga, the news results are all about teams who have met with, shown interest, or been reported to have scouted the 30-year-old righty as he plans to move to MLB. Despite this article being about how Senga could help the Orioles, you won’t find their name in any of those headlines.

Dodgers. Angels, Mets. Giants. Rangers. Red Sox. They’re all on the list. Combine that with the word out of Twitter that Senga’s agent says Senga wants to sign with a big market team, and it seems like the Orioles are a pretty slim possibility.

Why am I writing about this player who is such a slim chance for the Orioles? Because it’s the offseason! If we’re not going to dream big now, when can we?

So who is Kodai Senga anyway? Unlike most of the free-agent targets in this series, most MLB fans have never actually seen Senga play. That includes me. That means my discussion of Senga will be a lot like the discussions we have about possible draft picks. I have to rely on what scouts and other professionals have to say about him. The good news is that what other people have to say about him is very exciting.

Senga is a right-handed pitcher who started his career as a relief pitcher but who has spent the last several years as the ace of the SoftBank Hawks of the Nippon Professional League. He comes to MLB as an unrestricted free agent because the Hawks have an organizational policy not to post their players, even though Senga has asked to be posted in the past.

Because his team wouldn’t post him, Senga is a bit older than some other Japanese stars who have come to the states. The good news is that it means there is no posting fee associated with his signing.

Senga has four pitches including a high-90s fastball and an elite splitter. FanGraphs, who ranked him their 18th-best free agent this year, questions his fastball and his consistency with breaking pitches, but praises his splitter and his overall velocity, and has this to say about him:

Senga’s velocity, splitter, repertoire depth, and demonstrated durability make him a fit as no. 3 or 4 starter on a contender.

In the NPB in 2022, Senga used his variety of pitches to put up an ERA of just 1.94 with 156 strikeouts and only 27 walks in 144 innings pitched. Moving to MLB will be an adjustment, of course, but ZiPS projects him to have a WAR of 2.9 with an ERA+ of 118.

There is a question of if Senga has what it takes to stay in a rotation, something I saw raised in several places, including in Keith Law’s evaluation. Law, who also ranks Senga the 18th-best free agent, notes that the concern is that he won’t be able to get through major league lineups three times, but Law believes he has what it takes to start in an MLB rotation. For now, at least.

For a team like the Orioles that needs pitching depth and has several spots to fill this off-season, Senga would make sense based on the predicted contracts for him. FanGraphs predicts four years, $60M while MLB Trade Rumors believes in the same yearly average but that some team will give him a fifth year, making the contract a total of $75M. We don’t really know what the Orioles’ budget is, but $15M per year for a mid-rotation starter should leave plenty of payroll room to meet other team needs as well. Like, say, signing Justin Verlander.

As I said at the start of this story, it feels almost impossible that Senga will end up as an Oriole. Even though he doesn’t profile as an ace, he is getting attention from big-time teams. Senga has been trying to get to the majors for some time now and it sounds like he wants to go somewhere a bit more glitzy than Baltimore.

But if the Orioles did make a run at him, they could do more than just help solidify their rotation. They could make a statement that they are the sort of team that gets in the mix for big-name players. Bringing Senga into the fold would help provide legitimacy to Mike Elias’s declared liftoff. And he just seems like a fun player to watch. Let’s do it!