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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Yoshinobu Yamamoto

The opportunity to sign a 25-year-old superstar is seldom seen in free agency.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto celebrates against Korea in the 2020 Olympics.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto celebrates against Korea in the 2020 Olympics.
Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are once again in the market for starting pitching reinforcements after injuries and ineffectiveness marred the 2023 seasons of Carlos Rodón, Nestor Cortes, and Luis Severino. Given their abundance of high-minors hurlers — a group that includes Drew Thorpe, Will Warren, Clayton Beeter, and Chase Hampton — they could opt for shorter-term deals for placeholders while their prospects continue developing and their veterans work toward bounceback campaigns.

Reunions with Severino and Montas could fit the bill, but the Yankees could also conceivably open up their wallets for a reunion with Jordan Montgomery. Though he’ll likely command a nine-figure contract, the left-hander will probably sign for less than what the Yankees gave to Rodón last offseason. Yet, the Bombers are also considered among the top options for another top-of-the-rotation starter who will likely net even more of a premium: Japanese superstar Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Though Yamamoto’s agent called out Brian Cashman for comments about his other client Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees are still considered very interested in the Orix Buffaloes’ ace.

And why wouldn’t they be? The 25-year-old has won the NPB’s Sawamura Award, the league’s Cy Young equivalent, in each of the past three seasons thanks to sub-2.00 ERAs in every one of those years. This year, he notched a career-best 1.21 mark over 164 frames, and he’s shown the potential to shoulder a greater workload in the past, tossing 193.2 and 193 innings in 2021 and ‘22 respectively. Across 897 NPB innings in his career, his ERA (1.82) also comes in below 2.00 and he’s struck out 26.4 percent of the hitters he’s faced while walking just 5.9 percent and suppressing homers — and hits in general — along the way. Simply put, it’s rare enough that a pitcher of Yamamoto’s caliber hits the open market, and it’s rarer still that one does so at such a young age.

Yamamoto has yet to actually be posted by his NPB squad, but he almost certainly will this offseason, and he’s just as likely to command a huge sum. FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens sees him raking in nearly $200 million over seven years, while fans project him for about $20-25 million less over the same timeframe. Either way, he stands to earn more than Rodón did last winter.

While the Rodón contract, the Yankees’ most recent point of comparison, hasn’t looked so great thus far, there’s still plenty of time for a bounceback. More importantly, comparing the two pitchers is apples to oranges. For starters, Yamamoto is much younger; about five and a half years, at this particular moment, or about four and a half at signing. Next, with less mileage on his arm, the right-hander doesn’t come with nearly as many prior injuries. Some have raised concerns about his durability going forward due to his stature — he’s listed at 5-foot-10, shorter than all but two of the 189 pitchers who started at least 10 games this past season — but his deep repertoire and high level of success have tended to outweigh those worries.

In terms of arsenal, his heater sits mid-90s and tops out in the upper-90s with excellent carry. His secondaries are headlined by a short upper-70s hook and a low-90s split, both of which play very well off of his fastball. A tight low-90s slider, which he doesn’t turn to as much, rounds out his repertoire. With slider development in the Yankees’ system seemingly reaching new heights each year, this pitch could play up in New York. But as it stands, the right-hander’s three main offerings are plus and he locates them all well.

What’s more, thanks to international competition, we have some idea of how well these pitches will play outside of Japan. In the World Baseball Classic, Yamamoto tossed a gem against Australia, and though he struggled at times against an upstart Mexican squad, he still managed a final line of 7.1 innings with just two runs allowed next to 12 strikeouts on the tournament. Per renowned pitching model Stuff+, which is known to stabilize quickly (i.e., produce reliable results even in small samples), Yamamoto ranked second in nastiness among all pitchers with 28 pitches per tournament appearance, edging out the likes of Yu Darvish, Sandy Alcantara, and phenom Roki Sasaki. On a pitch-by-pitch basis, each one of Yamamoto’s offerings graded out as above average. Stuff+ isn’t available for NPB performances, but this was a promising showing nonetheless.

I can understand some hesitation to dole out a huge contract to a starting pitcher for a second offseason in a row, but by every indication, Yamamoto is a special talent. The young hurler figures to be well worth his steep price, the main obstacle for some teams outside of New York. For the Yankees, another factor might be where their pitching prospects fit in, but they should have no problem putting their development on hold, moving some arms to the bullpen, or perhaps even trading them to shore up some holes in a middling lineup, in order to make room in the rotation. Yamamoto is already developed, and he figures to be at the peak of his powers for several years to come.