Yoshinobu Yamamoto headlines talented group of impact free agent pitchers from Japan, Korea

Here’s one of baseball’s eternal truths: World Series contenders can never have enough impact pitching, in the rotation or the bullpen.

And with lots of clubs with World Series aspirations desperately needing impact arms on their 2024 rosters, there’s probably never a better time for a crop of outstanding pitchers coming to Major League Baseball from Asia, including one — Yoshinobu Yamamoto — who seems destined to sign the second-largest contract ever for a pitcher. 

Gerrit Cole tops that list, with his nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. Next is David Price, who inked a $217 million deal with the Red Sox after the 2015 season. He only pitched in Boston four of the seven years on the deal, but the Red Sox did win the World Series in one of those seasons (2018). Yamamoto’s new team would love a title, no doubt. 

And he’s almost certainly going to blow past that $217 million number, winding up closer to Cole than Price. But he’s not the only one who will impact the 2024 playoff races. 

Let’s take a look at six, with some help from our friends at Sporting News Japan. Those capsules were written by Yosei Kozano.

MORE: Six disappointing teams this offseason who can still rebound

Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP

Age on Opening Day 2024: 25

2023 stats in Japan: 24 starts, 1.16 ERA, 171 IP, 0.860 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 1.5 BB/9

Need to know: You probably know all about Yamamoto by now. He’s practically a Hot Stove legend at this point, with a potential price tag nearly double what some thought it might be just a couple months ago. All the big-budget clubs — the Mets, the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Giants, the Red Sox, the Cubs, etc — are not only involved in the conversation, but invested in the chase. What’s not to love? He’s only 25 and his numbers aren’t just video-game silly, they’re video-game glitch silly. In 171 innings last year in Japan, he gave up just TWO home runs and walked just 28 batters, with 176 strikeouts. 

And he can do basically whatever he wants with this contract. A dozen years with a high AAV? Done. Seven years with three opt-outs? Done. Anything he asks for, he’ll get. Because if one team doesn’t meet the demands, another one will. That’s not to say he’ll demand — or even ask nicely — for anything outrageous, just that he could. He’s that good. 

Potential landing spots: As mentioned above, any and every big-budget club is salivating at the idea of landing Yamamoto. Hopefully we’ll have our answer soon. Technically, his 45-day window ends on Jan. 4. 

MORE: Best landing spots for Yamamoto

Shota Imanaga, LHP

Age on Opening Day 2024: 30

2023 stats in Japan: 24 starts, 2.66 ERA, 1.019 WHIP, 159 IP, 188 strikeouts, 7.83 K/BB

Need to know: Like so many free-agent pitchers this offseason, his asking price seems to be reaching heights few expected a few months ago. Once thought destined to sign a deal similar to Kodai Senga’s last year with the Mets (5 years, $75 million), now it’s expected he could very easily wind up north of $100 million. Imanga isn’t on Yamamoto’s level — in terms of stuff or age — but his profile as a mid-rotation starter looks better and better the more you dig into the numbers. Especially appealing is his work in the strike zone; that average of just 1.4 walks per nine innings is elite. Among MLB pitchers with at least 140 innings, only three pitchers bested that number in 2023 — George Kirby (0.9), Zach Eflin (1.2) and Logan Webb (1.3). And combine that with a K/9 of 10.6? Sure, there will be an adjustment to a new league, but in general pitchers who throw strikes and miss bats tend to be pretty good. 

From Sporting News Japan: Rated the No. 1 college southpaw at Komazawa University in Tokyo, he joined the DeNA BayStars as a first-round pick in the 2015 NPB Draft. In eight seasons in the NPB, he pitched in 165 games, 158 of them starts. In 2022, he had a no-hitter and ranked first in the league with a WHIP of 0.94; in 2023, he ranked first in the league with 174 strikeouts. He throws a 95-mph fastball and five different breaking pitches. Parents are middle school teachers, brother is an elementary school teacher.

Potential landing spots: Pretty much every single team that misses on Yamamoto will be in on Imanaga, and you can bet more than one team — the Mets and Red Sox, especially — is envisioning a scenario where both join the rotation in 2024 and beyond. That list includes the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and Cubs, too. The smart team will focus on Imanaga now and try to lock him down before a bidding competition really kicks in. But Imanaga and his representatives know that waiting is the prudent play right now, unless a couple other starters like Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery sign before Yamamoto, so don’t be surprised if he’s the follow. His posting period ends on Jan. 9. 

Yuki Matsui, LHP

Age on Opening Day 2024: 28

2023 stats in Japan: 59 games, 1.57 ERA, 39 saves, 0.890 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9

Need to know: Matsui stands just 5-foot-8 and has a listed weight of 164 pounds, but he’s dominated NPB hitters the past three seasons, to the tune of a combined ERA of just 1.42, with 214 strikeouts in 152 innings. His improved control is especially impressive, dropping his BB/9 from 4.4 in 2021 to 3.3 in 2022 and 2.0 in 2023. At his size, if his numbers were more pedestrian, he might not be getting as much interest. But with those eye-popping totals and so many contending teams looking for bullpen help, this is a great offseason for him to make the jump to MLB. 

From Sporting News Japan: In his sophomore year of high school, he struck out 10 consecutive batters and struck out 22 in one game at the National High School Baseball Tournament. 2013 first-round NPB draft pick by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, he switched to closer in his second year and recorded 30 or more saves six times in his next nine seasons. He has 472 relief appearances, 236 saves, 76 holds, and 25 wins in 501 total appearances. 2023 was a career-high 39 saves. He rarely gets knocked out and is very consistent. His main weapon is the slider, which is described as “a disappearing ball.” He has a high strikeout rate, totaling 11.73 in his career, and a career-high 14.73 in 2022.

Potential landing spots: The Cardinals acted quickly this offseason to add established arms to their rotation, but the bullpen needs help, too. They reportedly hosted Mastui in St. Louis recently, a sure sign of their interest. The Padres also appear to be in the mix. The thing about bullpen pieces is this: every contender needs more good arms in their bullpen, so even the teams that might not be interested this minute because their priorities are elsewhere could quickly become interested depending on how a few offseason dominoes fall. Early guesses put his contract length at two years, but at this point don’t be surprised to see three and a club option or something similar.

MORE: Latest rumors from the free agency and trade markets

Naoyuki Uwasawa, RHP

Age on Opening Day 2024: 30

2023 stats in Japan: 24 starts, 2.96 ERA, 1.135 WHIP, 170 IP, 6.6 K/9, 2.2 BB/9

Need to know: Uwasawa doesn’t have the swing-and-miss stuff as some of the other NPB pitchers who might be coming over this offseason, but he does offer innings at a time when innings are at a premium in the majors. That contrast presents an interesting dilemma for teams considering him. From the perspective of MLB teams, he would be a great signing for rotation depth, or to fill the No. 5 spot in the rotation. It’s hard to see him signing with a contender and slotting into the No. 2 or 3 spot. 

From Sporting News Japan: One year older than Shohei Ohtani, he was drafted by the Nippon Ham Fighters in the 6th round in 2011. He played two years on the farm after joining the team, but in his third year, 2014, he became a starter. He then injured his elbow and was unable to pitch for a full season; he showed his true potential in 2018 with 11 wins and has been a starter pitcher ever since. His career high was 12 wins in 2021, and in 2023 he pitched 170 innings, the most in the league. 70-62 overall, 6’2″, 194 pounds, but not just a power pitcher, boasting a fastball and a variety of breaking pitches.

Potential landing spots: Shocker, but lots of teams are interested. There just aren’t enough quality starting pitchers to meet the demand this offseason. He reportedly met with Tampa Bay, and MLB Trade Rumors says six other teams have shown interest: the Angels, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Rangers, Reds, and Royals, though K.C. is almost certainly out now that Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo have signed.  

Yariel Rodriguez, RHP

Age on Opening Day 2024: 27

2022 stats in Japan: 56 appearances, 1.15 ERA, 54 2/3 IP, 0.915 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9

Need to know: You’ll notice we listed his 2022 stats from Japan, not his 2023 stats. That’s because he didn’t pitch in Japan in 2023; he was a starter for his native Cuba in the WBC — two starts, 2.45 ERA, 10 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings — and then opted not to go back to Japan, instead sitting out the season and working toward becoming eligible to pitch in the majors. He was finally granted his release in November, and he’s eligible to sign now, without any sort of posting fee normally required for players coming from Japan. 

As you see from those 2022 numbers, he was pretty dominant as a reliever, and it will be interesting to see how teams view him. Do they want him in that role, where he had success? Will they give him a chance to develop as a starter? As MLB Trade Rumors pointed out, half the clubs in baseball were present for one of his recent workouts. 

Potential landing spots: You name it, they’re probably interested. His choice will probably have a lot to do with what role teams are willing to give him. It’s doubtful a club with World Series aspirations in 2024 will just hand him a rotation spot, but maybe a second-tier club would be more willing to gamble on that development? The exception might be Tampa Bay, where “starter” means something different than it does with most clubs. 

Woo-suk Go, RHP

Age on Opening Day 2024: 25

2023 stats in Korea: 44 games, 3.68 ERA, 15 saves, 44 IP, 1.364 WHIP, 12.1 K/9, 4.5 BB/9

Need to know: His numbers dropped — some significantly — in 2023, compared to 2022, when he had a 1.48 ERA and 0.956 WHIP. So that could be a concern, but he’s still only 25 and he still missed bats in 2023, with a career-high 12.1 K/9 ratio. And he’s been in the closer’s role for his KBO club since 2019, when he was just 20 years old. He’s never been necessarily a control pitcher, but that 4.5 walks per nine last year was a big jump from 3.1 in 2022. He did only allow two homers, though. 

Potential landing spots: The Cardinals are reportedly very interested, but, again, pretty much every contender would love to add a reliever with ninth-inning experience who consistently misses bats. His posting period ends on Jan. 3.

Source : ESPN.com

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