How much has Japanese baseball had an impact on Major League Baseball? The top two free agents this winter are both from Japan and could get contracts worth a combined $750 million. They are Angels pitcher/DH Shohei Ohtani, a two-time American League MVP, and right-handed pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, arguably the top pure pitcher (Ohtani is in a league of his own) to ever make the jump from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB. Teams have until Jan. 4 to sign Yamamoto to a contract. SportsLine offers odds on his next team.
American players of this caliber almost never reach free agency at the young age of 25. This past season with the Orix Buffaloes in NPB, Yamamoto went 16-6 with a 1.21 ERA in 164 innings and allowed just two home runs. He won his third straight Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award, and also won the pitching Triple Crown for a third year in row. He isn't the hardest thrower in the world with mid-90s fastball, but has a devastating wipeout split-finger fastball and an absolutely gorgeous rainbow curveball that has been compared to Clayton Kershaw's.
In addition, Yamamoto won a third straight Pacific League MVP Award, joining Ichiro Suzuki (1994-96) and Hisashi Yamada (1976-78) as the only players in NPB history to win three straight MVPs. Many Americans got their first look at Yamamoto in this year's World Baseball Classic as he was the ace of Team Japan, which won the event. Yamamoto's fastball averaged over 95 mph in his two outings -- almost 2 mph faster than the average big league starter -- and got as high as 97.
Every team in the majors will be interested, but obviously only the big-market clubs are realistic options because it's going to cost at least $200 million to sign Yamamoto, and it might happen sooner than you think. There has been speculation that the groundwork for a deal could be finalized at the annual Winter Meetings, which begin next week in Nashville. His 45-day posting window closes at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, Jan. 4.
Reportedly, his agent told teams that Yamamoto wouldn't mind playing with other Japanese player(s), but it's not mandatory. The Yankees don't currently have any Japanese players but a great history with them with the likes of Masahiro Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda, Hideki Matsui, and Ichiro's brief stint in pinstripes. The Yankees reportedly intentionally did not give out jersey No. 18 last season as they were regularly scouting Yamamoto in Japan. It was his number with the Orix Buffaloes and traditionally considered the "ace" number in Japan. Kuroda wore 18 with the Yankees. Tanaka took 19 in New York out of respect for Kuroda, who was still on the team when Tanaka arrived. Then again, No. 11 was the "ace" number when Yu Darvish played in Japan, and he's worn No. 11 in MLB whenever available.
Owner Hal Steinbrenner is somewhat under the gun to go on a spending spree after the Yanks fell to 82-80 last season to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2016. If the Bombers fail to make the World Series in 2024, it would be the 15th consecutive season without the Yankees in the Fall Classic. That's unacceptable by the franchise's standards.
Yamamoto is close with Darvish and Boston outfielder Masataka Yoshida. The Padres would make a world of sense but appear in cost-cutting mode with Juan Soto very likely to be traded – maybe to the Yankees. The Red Sox are ready to spend after back-to-back last-place finishes in the AL East. They did well in signing Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka in the 2006-07 offseason and could use that as a model for their strategy in pursuing Yamamoto.
Let's be clear there could be an Ohtani-Yamamoto overlap, even though Ohtani won't pitch next season after underging another major surgery on his arm -- but he will be ready to hit. Ohtani fully plans a return to the mound in 2025. The Dodgers are considered the favorites to sign Ohtani or otherwise would be leaders here. Can Los Angeles afford to spend nearly a billion dollars and add both? In theory, sure, but Ohtani is likely Option A and Yamamoto Option B.
No owner in the majors has more money than the Mets' Steve Cohen, and New York badly needs starting pitching after trading away Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander last season. The Mets struck gold last offseason by winning the bidding for Japanese right-hander Kodai Senga, who finished 12-7 with a 2.98 ERA and 202 strikeouts. He's a very good pitcher but also about five years older than Yamamoto, and thus Senga "only" got $75 million over five years.
The industry belief is that San Francisco will do something big this winter after striking out on Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa last offseason. Frankly, the Giants need bats more than anything, but they also need a gate attraction. Ohtani is the biggest gate attraction in the sport.
Seattle is where Ichiro became an MLB legend and fellow Japanese players Mac Suzuki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Masao Kida, Kaz Sazaki and Hisashi Iwakuma all also played there at one point. Seattle's T-Mobile Park is quite pitcher-friendly. Some believe that Yamamoto (like Ohtani) wants to play on the West Coast because it's as close as possible to his home country. If they land him, Seattle would have a potential ace (to pair with the excellent Luis Castillo) and a superstar in outfielder Julio Rodriguez to build around.
Via SportsLine oddsmakers: Which team will sign Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto?
- Yankees +300
- Mets +350
- Red Sox +400
- Giants +500
- Dodgers +600
- Mariners +900
- Cubs +1000
- Rangers +1200
- Phillies +1300
- Padres +1700
- Cardinals +1800
- Diamondbacks +2000
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