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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Naoyuki Uwasawa

There’s more than one Japanese righty looking to find a home in an American rotation next spring

Japan All-Star Series: Japan v. MLB All-Stars

With both Shohei Ohtani’s free agency and the long-awaited Juan Soto trade finally wrapped up, the eyes of the Yankees — and most of the league’s other power players, by most reports — are focused on Yoshinobu Yamamoto. As they should be: Clayton Beeter is currently slotted into the Yankees’ fifth rotation spot, according to Roster Resource. It’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll add at least one starter on a multi-year deal this offseason, and it might make sense to add more than one, given the valid questions about Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes’s ability to stay healthy and eat innings. It would probably be best if they don’t have to rely on the likes of Beeter and Luis Gil as much as they leaned on Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez last season.

Yamamoto isn’t the only Japanese starter currently available via posting, either. He’s only gotten a fraction of the publicity (for obvious reasons), but let me introduce you to Naoyuki Uwasawa, who’s got a career 3.19 ERA in over a thousand innings as a starter in Nippon Professional Baseball, and is pictured here punching out 14 members of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

2023 Stats (Nippon Ham Fighters, Nippon Professional Baseball): 24 G, 170 IP, 2.96 ERA 17.8 K%, 5.9 BB%

Those gaudy strikeout numbers aren’t the norm for Uwasawa, as you might have guessed from his relatively paltry strikeout rate, which worked out to 6.6 K/9 in 2023. Unlike Yamamoto and Ohtani, Uwasawa isn’t a flamethrower. Quite the opposite, actually, His fastball reportedly lives in the 90-91 mph range, and makes his hay as a prototypical soft-contact-seeker, drawing comparisons to Kyle Hendricks in a few reports.

Still, one can understand why he’s hardly getting any buzz at all despite having averaged over 160 innings of sub-3 ERA pitching over the last three seasons. Sitting at 90-91 mph is life on the edge for a modern major league starter, and those who can do it and be more than second-division rotation filler are few and far between.

There’s little recent precedent for soft-tossers of that degree coming over from Japan, and there’s no way to project with confidence that Uwasawa’s ability to limit hard contact will translate to the major leagues. Unfortunately, the best recent point of comparison for him might be his erstwhile Fighters teammate Kohei Arihara, who signed a modest two-year, six million dollar deal and was shelled for a 7.57 ERA in 60 innings for the Rangers between 2021 and ‘22.

Japan All-Star Series: Japan v. MLB All-Stars

That’s being a bit unfair to Uwasawa, though. Arihara didn’t have his extended track record of success in NPB, and neither did Shun Yamaguchi, another soft-tossing righty who found out very quickly in 2020 that his stuff was not well-suited to the AL East. Where he is like Arihara is in his extremely wide arsenal, which reportedly includes a cutter, slider, splitter, curveball, changeup, and two-seamer on top of that low-90s four-seamer. It’s an arsenal that lets variety and unpredictability do what raw stuff can’t: Yakyu Cosmopolitan calls the splitter a plus pitch, “but otherwise, none of the other secondaries really stand out. He’s just very good at mixing speeds with average- to above-average command.”

In the absence of sheer nastiness, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether his command will carry over against hitters with more discerning eyes, and who do a lot more damage to mistakes than his median NPB opponent. Kenta Maeda and Masahiro Tanaka both found plenty of success living in the low-90s with their fastballs, but they also possessed pitch traits and movement a tier or two above what I see in Uwasawa’s video, and both of them had far more decorated careers in Japan. Still, at 30, he’s got 11 years of pro experience under his belt, and while it’s been a few years, one can point to names like Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma as examples of foreign veteran hurlers who found success after flying somewhat under the radar due to their age and lack of what was seen as premium stuff.

It still feels likely that Uwasawa’s ceiling is lower than that, which is why he’s a solid candidate to fill a Yankees offseason need, with or without Yamamoto. Uwasawa wasn’t ranked among either MLB Trade Rumors or FanGraphs’ top 50 free agents, and he may even be hard-pressed to reach Arihara’s modest deal. The unknowability of how his already-risky game will play in MLB means that his market will be below what his statistical track record would typically fetch, which could make for an interesting opportunity, if a team has reason to enough of the success will translate.

It’s the kind of low-risk, high-upside swing that the Yankees are well-suited for right about now. They wouldn’t need to rely on him to do much more than eat innings at the very back of the rotation, and with his track record of success, there’s a degree of potential immediate upside that you’re probably not getting with the likes of Beeter and Will Warren. Even three starting pitchers on nine-figure deals won’t be enough to navigate the utter gauntlet of the AL East by themselves. There are a lot of wins to be had by maximizing the upside you get out of the back end of a rotation. Uwasawa could be a risky, but nonetheless intriguing, source of that upside.