Japan's Roki Sasaki in the 2023 World Baseball Classic.

Japan's Roki Sasaki in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee

The Yankees came up short in their aggressive offseason pursuit of Yoshinobu Yamamoto, as the standout Japanese pitcher opted to forgo their $300 million offer and sign with Shohei Ohtani’s Dodgers for $325 million.

Now the Yankees, and a long list of other big-league clubs, are positioning themselves for a run at the next top pitcher in Japan, Roki Sasaki. More than a few rival talent evaluators, both here and those stationed in the Pacific Rim, believe Sasaki is an even better prospect than Yamamoto.

It is not yet a certainty that the 22-year-old Sasaki, 5-2 with a 1.96 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP in nine starts this season with the Chiba Lotte Marines, will be posted this winter, though the industry belief is he ultimately will be.

The Yankees have had someone in Japan pretty much all season watching  Sasaki, a righthander featuring a 100-mph fastball and elite breaking stuff who, in terms of attention garnered, broke into the international scene during the 2022 World Baseball Classic.

Among those from the Yankees' scouting department who already have laid in-person eyes on Sasaki — besides Alex Sunderland, the club’s well-regarded pro scout stationed in Tokyo — are Brandon Duckworth and Jay Darnell. Pro scouting director Matt Daley  already has made one trip to Japan this season and is likely to make another one during the season’s second half to watch Sasaki, as well as the lengthy list of other top players in Nippon Professional Baseball who project as future major-leaguers.

But Sasaki, 24-12 with a 1.99 ERA,  446 strikeouts and 74 walks in 343 1/3 innings in four seasons with Chiba Lotte, is the player creating the most buzz. One American League scout who has seen him compares him to Pirates flamethrower Paul Skenes.

“That kind of potential impact,” the scout said. “Because of the fastball and the breaking stuff he can throw off of it.”

One Pacific Rim evaluator from a National League club said Sasaki has “two 80” pitches, his fastball and splitter. (Generally speaking, all players are graded by scouts on a 20-80 scale, with 80 being the highest.)

“It’s real,” the evaluator said of Sasaki’s overall arsenal. “You’re combining elite arm strength with some elite breaking balls. The slider has to come on a bit more, but  [the stuff is] really good.”

If Sasaki does get posted, the Dodgers, not surprisingly, will be the favorite to get him. The Dodgers, like the Yankees and multiple other teams, including the Mets, have scouted him extensively this season.

If Sasaki does get posted, it is a certainty that he won’t command anything close to the kind of deal Yamamoto received. Because Sasaki will be only 23 in the winter, he is subject to Major League Baseball international bonus pools, which limits the amount he can sign for. Once he’s 25, he  no longer will be subject to bonus pools, which each year typically is in the $7 million range, and will be eligible, like any free agent, to sign a deal of any length and for as many dollars as he can get.

If Sasaki comes to the big leagues at 23, he will be under the control of whatever team signs him for six years before becoming eligible for free agency. The last Japanese star to come that early in his career was Ohtani, who signed with the Angels at 23 for $2.3 million. As a free agent last winter, he signed a 10-year, $700 million deal, with much of that money deferred.

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