Shota Imanaga Is Looking Forward to Transition to the Major Leagues with the Chicago Cubs

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
New Chicago Cubs pitcher Shōta Imanaga poses with his jersey during a news conference Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, in Chicago.

CHICAGO (AP) — On a snowy afternoon in downtown Chicago, Shōta Imanaga pulled on a Cubs cap and a crisp, pinstriped No. 18 jersey in the middle of a hotel ballroom.

Then the Japanese left-hander quickly made a bunch of new friends.

“Hey Chicago, what do you say? Cubs are going to win today,” Imanaga said in English, reciting a couple of lines from the song “Go Cubs Go” much to the delight of a group of fans on hand for his first press conference with his new team.

Imanaga was formally introduced by the Cubs on Friday, a day after he finalized a $53 million, four-year contract that could become an $80 million, five-year deal. Nicknamed “The Throwing Philosopher,” he went 7-4 with a 2.80 ERA in 22 starts last season with the Yokohama BayStars of Japan’s Central League, finishing with 174 strikeouts and 24 walks in 148 innings.

The 30-year-old Imanaga steps into Chicago’s rotation in place of Marcus Stroman, who opted out of his contract and has a pending $37 million, two-year deal with the New York Yankees. Chicago also has lefty Justin Steele and right-handers Kyle Hendricks and Jameson Taillon projected for its rotation.

“We’re very excited to bring Shōta on board,” said Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations for the Cubs. “He’s been a great teammate. He’s very curious. He has a reputation of being an exceptionally cerebral pitcher. … He wants to continue to get better, and that sounds like a perfect match for the Cubs.”

Imanaga gets a $1 million signing bonus payable within 30 days of the deal’s approval by Major League Baseball and salaries of $9 million this year and $13 million in 2025.

Chicago can exercise an option for salaries of $20 million in 2026, $20 million in 2027 and $17 million in 2028. If the Cubs decline, Imanaga would have a $15 million player option for 2026.

If the pitcher exercises his option, Chicago would have an option for salaries of $24 million in 2027 and $18 million in 2028.

If the Cubs decline their first option, Imanaga exercises his first option and the team declines its second option, the pitcher would have a $15 million option for 2027.

His salaries in all future seasons of the contract would escalate by $1 million for winning a Cy Young Award, $500,000 for finishing second or third and $500,000 for fourth through 10th. If he wins this year’s Rookie of the Year award, his 2025 salary only would increase by $250,000.

Imanaga will become a free agent when the contract ends.

Recognizable for throwback-style high socks, Imanaga was 64-50 with a 3.18 ERA in eight seasons with Yokohama, striking out 1,021 and walking 280 in 1,002 2/3 innings. He also got the win for Japan in last year’s World Baseball Classic final against the United States.

“The experience of the World Baseball Classic made me think that there is more to baseball, more that I can improve on,” Imanaga said through an interpreter.

“And also, facing the hitters, they’re players of unimaginable talent over here and it made me want to apply myself and face them, face the challenge here.”

With Imanaga’s first major league contract, Chicago can exercise a 2028 option after 2025 or ’26. If the team declines the option in either instance, the pitcher would have the right to opt out of the remainder of the contract to become a free agent.

Chicago must pay a release fee of $9,825,000 to Yokohama under the posting agreement between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball. The amount of the fee would increase if the option is exercised.

The addition of Imanaga was the first big player acquisition for Chicago since it hired Craig Counsell as manager in November, replacing David Ross in a surprise move. The Cubs were in position for an NL wild card last year before stumbling in September, fading to an 83-79 record after finishing under .500 in the previous two seasons.

Chicago acquired power-hitting infielder Michael Busch in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, and it is still shopping for help ahead of spring training. Cody Bellinger is a free agent after a resurgent season, and the Cubs are hoping to re-sign the slugger.

As Imanaga weighed his options, he did his homework on Chicago and his new team. He said he picked No. 18 in honor of Ben Zobrist, a three-time All-Star who was the World Series MVP when the Cubs won the title in 2016. He also spoke with former Cubs right-hander Yu Darvish about his transition to the majors.

“I asked him about what are the things that he placed emphasis on when picking the team, and I also talked to other players who played in (the) U.S. as well,” Imanaga said. “But they all said in unison that Chicago is a wonderful city.”

One of the biggest challenges for Imanaga is the usual schedule for a big league rotation. The norm for starting pitchers is four days of rest, compared to five or more in Japan.

“It’s a novel experience for me, so I want to keep an open mind and seek advice from a lot of people,” he said. “Luckily I have the time in spring training so I can talk to the manager and coaching staff, my teammates, and figure out what works for me.”

Counsell, who drew praise for how he handled his pitching staff during his nine seasons as Milwaukee’s manager, is keeping his options open when it comes to Imanaga’s adjustment to the majors.

“I think we have to be cognizant of how he has pitched in the past and the rest he has gotten in the past,” Counsell said, “and that’s going to inform our decisions. But at the same time, there’s going to be times when he’s going to pitch on four days and we know that.”

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
New Chicago Cubs pitcher Shōta Imanaga shakes hands with fans as he is introduced at a team convention Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, in Chicago.