Chicago Cubs Add to the Rotation with Japanese Lefty Shota Imanaga

The Chicago Cubs needed to fortify their rotation and were able to do so by signing promising Japanese left-hander starter Shota Imanaga.

OSAKA, JAPAN - MARCH 09: Pitcher Shota Imanaga #21 of Japan throws in the bottom of 1st inning during the game one between Japan and Mexico at Kyocera Dome Osaka on March 9, 2019 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

The Cubs have boosted their rotation by signing one of the better free agent pitching options still available. While Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery are still looking for homes, Shota Imanaga has found one on the North Side.

Imanaga is a lefty from Japan who has spent his last eight seasons pitching for the Yokohama Bay Stars in the NPB. In those eight seasons, Imanaga has thrown just over 1000 innings with a 3.18 ERA and a WHIP just over one.

If you would like a full breakdown on Imanaga’s arsenal please read Aram Leighton’s full break down of Imanaga. This is going to be a look at the contract and where Imanaga fits with the Cubs.

Imanaga’s Contract

The Cubs have signed Imanaga to a unique four-year deal that guarantees $53 million. The contract is unique in that following both the 2025 and 2026 seasons the Cubs will have the option to extend the contract to a fifth year. Extending the contract would push the deal to $80 million.

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However, should the Cubs decide not to extend the contract in 2025 or 2026, Imanaga can choose to opt out of the remainder of the contract and elect free agency.

Cubs fans should feel good about this! If Imanaga performs, he can be extended and at what could be a substantial discount should he perform.

This contract looks like quite the steal for the Cubs. With an average annual value of $13.25 million the Cubs could end up with one of the best value signings of this free agency period.

For reference, Kyle Gibson and Luis Severino are both being paid $13 million this year. Granted they are on one year deals.

FanGraphs has Imanaga projected at a 3.84 ERA with 148 innings and 2.6 WAR. Last year Seth Lugo had 1.8 WAR in 146 innings with a 3.57 ERA. This offseason Lugo signed a three year deal worth $45 million. If Imanaga exceeds his projections I think it would be fair to call this signing a steal.

Where does Imanaga fit with the Cubs

FanGraphs currently has Imanaga as the third starter in the Cubs rotation. He is behind Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon.

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This offseason the Cubs are likely to lose Marcus Stroman (he is still currently a free agent). They will also likely downgrade Drew Smyly to the bullpen following a poor showing in 2023. Accordingly, the Cubs will have Imanaga and a rookie (likely Jordan Wicks) step in.

All in all, whoever is the fill in for Smyly will be an upgrade and Imanga for Stroman projects as a wash. I see Imanaga as having more upside than Stroman however. Time will tell how much of an upgrade over Stroman he will be.

It is hard for me to look at this signing and say that the Cubs are definitively better than they were last year. Imanaga is a great low risk, potentially high reward signing that helps sholder the loss of Stroman.

Last year the Cubs graded as a middle of the pack rotation. They could improve on that this coming season but probably not due to the Imanaga signing. If the Cubs improve as a rotation it will likely be the result of a couple things. Justin Steele being a Cy Young candidate, Jameson Taillon improving upon an abysmal season, and a rookie stepping up.

Conclusion on Imanaga to the Cubs

Just Baseball’s Tim Kelly predicted Imanaga would sign for five years and $80 million. He hit it on the nose as that is what it will be if the Cubs opt to extend him at some point. However, the Cubs have protected themselves with the opt out, only guaranteeing $53 million.

While this does not in my eyes improve the Cubs for 2024, I still think that it is a good signing. Imanaga offers upside and there is a chance he looks more like his countryman Kodai Senga (production wise) than the projections. It is safe to say that would make the Cubs very happy. That stat line is certainly within the realm of possibility.

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The Cubs needed a replacement for Marcus Stroman and they found one. With a couple more moves, the Cubs could find themselves atop a wide open NL Central in 2024.