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Sasaki wants to play in MLB but Japanese pitcher won't say when that might be

Roki Sasaki Roki Sasaki - The Canadian Press

TOKYO (AP) — Pitcher Rōki Sasaki is the next big thing out of Japanese baseball. It's just not clear when he will make it to Major League Baseball.

The 22-year-old signed a one-year contract with the Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League this week and made clear where he wants to eventually land.

“I have the desire to play in the U.S. major leagues in the future,” Sasaki said during a news conference Saturday, according to the Kyodo news agency. “I’ve been communicating every year. I believe the club understands it too.”

Sasaki has watched Shohei Ohtani sign a record $700 million, 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers last month. Days later, Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto reached a $325 million, 12-year deal with the Dodgers. Many believe Sasaki is a better prospect than Yamamoto.

Sasaki could land another astounding contract, but he would cost an MLB team relatively little if he signs before age 25.

Asked when he would play in MLB, Kyodo reported Sasaki saying very little: "I believe it’s important to play well in the season that’s right in front of me.”

Japanese players need nine years of service time in their major leagues to become a free agent. They can move to MLB earlier under an agreement between Nippon Professional Baseball and MLB that established a posting system under which a Japanese club makes a player available for bidding and receives a release fee: 20% of the first $25 million of a major league contract, 17.5% of the next $25 million and 15% of any amount over $50 million.

However, a player under 25 who has not reached six years of service in a foreign major league is subject to MLB's international amateur signing bonus pools, which set a hard cap and limit him initially to a minor league contract. Each team was given $4,652,200 to $7,114,800 for the period of Jan. 15 through Dec. 15 this year, though clubs can trade allotment. That system allowed the Los Angeles Angels to sign Ohtani ahead of the 2018 season for $2,315,000.

Reports in Japan suggest Sasaki, the youngest pitcher to throw a perfect game in Japan, may have a provision in his contract that would force Lotte to post him at his request, perhaps after this season. The reports have not been confirmed by Lotte.

The annual posting period runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, and MLB teams have a 45-day window to reach a deal. That means a late posting could allow a team to use its 2025 bonus allotment.

Last season in Japan, Sasaki sustained an oblique muscle injury that limited him to 15 games and 91 innings. He helped Japan win last year's World Baseball Classic.

Sasaki pitched a perfect game on April 10, 2022, against the Orix Buffaloes and struck out 19 — 13 in a row at one point. In the next start on April 17, he pitched eight perfect innings against the Nippon-Ham Fighters before he was pulled for cautionary reasons, He had 14 strikeouts in that outing, including striking out the side in the eighth and showing off a 101 mph fastball.