Several high-profile Japanese players are rumoured to be posted in the upcoming offseason. Would any of them be a fit for the Jays?
When writers talk about the upcoming free agent market, the focus is often on MLB players. Could the Jays sign Gerrit Cole? Would Kyle Gibson leave the Twins? Could Stephen Strasburg opt out of the remainder of his Nationals contract?
But there is another group of potential free agents that could potentially be of interest: the international free agents / players expected to be posted. Might one of these players fit the Jays’ needs – potentially even better than the MLB options?
Toronto Blue Jays
Shogo Akiyama – CF, Saitama Seibu Lions
Akiyama turned down a contract offer that would have kept him in Japan for the 2020 season, reportedly because of his strong desire to finish his career (he will play 2020 at 32 years old) in the big leagues.
He is a centre fielder, with significantly above-average defensive skills (he is a two-time Pacific League Golden Glove Award winner). His bat is no slouch either – so far in 2019 he has a .310/.400/.484 line (actually down from the .323/.403/.534 he posted in 2018). He is a four-time NPB All Star, and has not missed a game due to injury in the last five years.
Why Jays? A gold glove level centre fielder with plus speed and a high on-base percentage – what’s not to like? And why not? At 32, he is likely declining, and the usual caveats about a player from the Japanese league moving to North America apply.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo – LF/3B/1B, Yokohama Bay Stars
Start with the big caveat – even though Tsutsugo has expressed a desire to play in North America, he is not an international free agent until after the 2020 year. So he would only be available if his Japanese team, the Yokohama Bay Stars, agree to post him early.
That said, Tsutsugo would check a lot of boxes. He is still young (he will play the 2020 year at age 28) and has been one of the premiere power hitters in the Japanese league. In 2018, he had a .295/.393/.596 batting line with 38 home runs. Tsutsugo is also an active advocate for changes in the Japanese system for children’s baseball, saying “I’ve seen cases where coaches scream at kids and even become violent. Coaches and children need to respect each other in order for children to make progress.” He has even written a book on the subject.
Why Jays? A young, power-hitting outfielder with 1B/3B flexibility and a plus-plus community presence. If the Jays really believe in placing a high priority on character, he definitely qualifies. And why not? It is rare that power translates from Japan to MLB, and power is Tsutsugo’s calling card. So there is risk there.
Ryosuke Kikuchi – 2B, Hiroshima Carp
Kikuchi (no, not the Seattle pitcher) is a six-time Gold Glove second baseman who has expressed a desire to move to the big leagues in 2020. But, like Tsutsugo, he is under team control (in his case, through the 2021 season) so the decision to post him would rest with his team, the Hiroshima Carp.
"“I love the way he goes about the game. High energy, competes, really plays like he wants to be the best guy on the field. I really like the way he goes about his business.”"
His bat is less impressive, though – so far in 2019, he has a .265/.312/.408 line with 12 home runs in 586 PAs. So think Dustin Pedroia with a lighter bat – or an Andrelton Simmons playing second base.
Why Jays? An elite defensive 2B would reduce the pressure on Bo Bichette, and would allow the Jays to compensate for Vladdy at 3B or 1B if he continues to struggle (remember how Ian Kinsler’s elite 2B compensated for Miggy Cabrera’s less-than-elite 1B?). Not to mention how it would help the young pitchers. Why not? Kikuchi’s bat would likely be well below average with the move. And Cavan Biggio is playing MLB-average second base right now, in his first year in the bigs, so defensively second is not a position of critical need.
Yuki Yanagita – CF, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
Another MLB candidate, and another player under contract whose release would depend on his team’s willingness to post him. Caveat made.
After the first two games of the 2018 Japan All-Star Series (against MLB players), Los Angeles Dodgers player Kike Hernandez said:
"“Maybe in two games we’ve seen enough to know that he’s got plenty of talent to go over to the U.S. To not just be a big leaguer, but he’s got the potential to be an impact player in the big leagues, possibly an All-Star.”"
Yes, Yuki is that good. In 2018, he hit .352 with 36 homers, 102 RBIs, and stole 21 bases. He finished first in NPB in batting average and was second in OPS. He was injured in 2019, and “only” put up a .253/.387/.538 batting line. But at 31 years old in 2020, he should have more than a few prime years left.
Why the Jays? Yuki has been described as “the best hitter in the NPB right now“. And he plays centre field. ‘Nuff said. Why not? As with Tsutsugo, there is no guarantee that Yangita’s power will translate, and his exaggerated swing could prove problematic against MLB-calibre pitching.
Tetsuto Yamada – 2B, Yakult Swallows
Same caveat – Yamada would need to be posted to move to North America in 2020.
To sum up Yamada: he has been called “Japan’s Mike Trout“. Except that to call him that “would astoundingly sell him short”. Do I have your interest yet?
From 2014-2018 he’s AVERAGED a .304 batting average in 537 at bats, 636 plate appearances, 33 home runs, 32 doubles, 107 runs scored, 92 RBI, 25 SB with just 4 CS, plus-rated defence at second base, and 90 walks a year.
And Yamada will not turn 28 until July 2020.
Why the Jays? Duh. Why not? Well, if you thought the competition for Ohtani was crazy, wait until Yamada comes to America.
The bottom line
It is entirely possible that some (many?) of the above players will not be posted in the upcoming offseason. But hopefully the Jays are thinking out of the player acquisition box, both in general and specifically in terms of the NPB market. It would be unfortunate if the Jays missed out once again because they “just don’t know enough about this player“.