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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Yuki Matsui

A teammate of a former Yankee over in NPB, could Matsui be a bullpen piece for the Bombers?

Japan v MLB All Stars - Game 5 Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

When it comes to NPB players coming over to MLB, Yoshinobu Yamamoto is obviously the biggest name. The pitcher is one of, if not the biggest pitchers on the market this offseason, and reportedly has several teams — including the Yankees — interested in him.

However, besides him, there are some other players who could possibly make the jump over to the bigs this winter who are worth noting. One is an intriguing reliever named Yuki Matsui.

The 28-year-old Matsui has spent the last 10 seasons playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, where he’s been teammates with former Yankee Masahiro Tanaka for the past two seasons. While he initially began his career in a swingman-ish role in 2014, he’s spent every season since then primarily in the bullpen, where he’s put in some dominant campaigns.

In total in his 10 NPB seasons, he has a 2.40 ERA in 659.2 innings in 501 games with 236 career saves. However over the past three seasons, he has a 1.42 ERA in 152 innings, with a 0.881 WHIP, while striking out 12.7 batters per nine innings. The best of those seasons came in 2021, when he allowed a remarkable three earned runs (3!) in over 40 innings. He has had struggles with walks over his career, but is coming off a year where he walked just two batters per nine innings in 2023, which is a career best in that regard.

This past year, he was also a member of the victorious Japan national team at the World Baseball Classic, although he made just one appearance, striking out one in a perfect inning.

The left-handed Matsui’s done all of that with a fastball that can top out as high as 96 MPH, along with a slider and a very impressive splitter, which he’s reportedly tried to rely on more in anticipation of a potential move to MLB.

However, he also once used his slider to strike out 22 batters in one game when he was in high school. While he’s recorded over 200 career saves in Japan, he probably profiles more as a set-up man/late inning guy in the states.

Besides the aforementioned issues with walks, a potential downside to Matsui include his frame, as he stands at just 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds.

The Yankees have reportedly been among the teams to scout Matsui, but they’ll likely face some competition, not only from other major league teams. Matsui is set to be a free agent, meaning he doesn’t have to go through the posting process that some other NPB players do when coming over. While that makes the potential process of bringing him over slightly less complicated, the door to him staying in Japan also isn’t closed.

His team, the Golden Eagles, are reportedly set to offer Matsui a big deal to stay, as he is one of their stars. Reports have their offer to retain the reliever somewhere in the realm of four years and 1.6 billion yen — around $10.8 million at time of writing.

On the other hand, it might not take that much to pry him over, as Matsui seems fairly interested in taking the leap to MLB. Beyond the supposed attempts to make his pitch repertoire more MLB-friendly, he also hired agent Bryan Minniti, who is American and has worked in the front office of several MLB teams in the past. That could be a potential indicator that he is eager to move over.

The Yankees scouting him indicates there’s some level of interest. Obviously, if he’s the biggest move the team were to make this offseason, that would be a problem. However, there’s some amount of need in the bullpen, and if Matsui is the cherry on top of the Yankees’ offseason, he could be a nice piece for the team.

Beyond all that, the last Matsui on the Yankees worked out pretty well.