Blue Jays: Exploring Japanese free agents to find position depth

TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 07: Yoshitomo Tsutsugo #25 of Japan hits a two-run homer in the seventh inning of the World Baseball Classic Pool B Game One between Cuba and Japan at Tokyo Dome on March 7, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 07: Yoshitomo Tsutsugo #25 of Japan hits a two-run homer in the seventh inning of the World Baseball Classic Pool B Game One between Cuba and Japan at Tokyo Dome on March 7, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Blue Jays are looking to shore up their defence in the outfield and find another first baseman and could look towards Japanese free agents in order to fulfill the depth charts.

The Toronto Blue Jays are looking to make moves this off-season and are looking at every possible avenue to make their organization better during the rebuild.

Every season, there are usually a few players within the Nippon Professional Baseball who are posted for MLB teams across the league. This posting system is an agreement between the NPB and MLB when it comes to the top stars within Japan attempting to make the jump over the Pacific Ocean to play professional baseball in North America.

How a player becomes posted is based on said player’s service time within the NPB. If a player has nine or more years of service time within Japan’s top baseball league, they qualify as international free agents and do not need to be posted by their organization, and just go straight to free agency.

If a player does not possess the minimum 9 years, the player’s organization within Japan may choose to post the player and receive a fee when that player signs with an MLB team. The organization in Japan then receives an allotted financial incentive based on how much their former player signs for, with the original team receiving a percentage of the guaranteed money depending on the value of the contract. Essentially, the more money the player signs for, the more the Japanese team receives in payment (more information can be found through the link here).

This off-season, Ross Atkins has already stated they are already interested in two Japanese players: 1B/OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and CF Shogo Akiyama.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

At 27 years old, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo bats from the left side and has spent the majority of his career in the outfield, as well as some time at 3B and 1B earlier in his professional career.

During his time in the NPB, the left-hander has an impressive .284/.382/.525 slash line along with 205 home runs, 613 RBI’s, and 532 walks over his 10-year career. He has 978 games under his belt, as well as 3460 at-bats during his time in Japan’s top baseball league.

He also spent some time with the Japanese Baseball team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, earning MVP honours within Pool B for his incredible .433/.680/.320 slash line.

The Japanese outfielder is widely known for his slugging ability and power in the box, with many scouts considering him to be currently one of the best hitters in the league. He does have quite a few strikeouts under his belt, fitting the norm of a power hitter going for the long ball. This may be an issue when he faces pitchers from the MLB, but the risk could be mitigated if he crushes home runs on a regular basis. His contact numbers are still impressive given he fits the genre of a ‘power hitter’, and does walk frequently to give him an impressive on-base percentage.

Tsutsugo has spent a majority of his time in left field, and his defence has been widely regarded as below average. This means that the Tsutsugo may have to make a permanent switch to the infield, most likely to 1B or 3B, positions that he does have experience in while playing in the NPB.

This match makes sense for the Blue Jays because of their need for another 1st baseman. Justin Smoak will most likely not return this free agency, and Rowdy Tellez stands as the team’s only dedicated first baseman.

The Blue Jays could choose to rotate internal players at first base like Brandon Drury or Cavan Biggio, but acquiring Tsutsugo might be able to mitigate these moves, allowing Biggio to continue to develop at 2nd base (which I would personally prefer). He can also be utilized as the designated hitter, which would create a solid tandem between Tellez for a 1B/DH to allow both players to rest without taking the power out of the lineup.

Even if Tsutsugo stays in left field, this would allow the Blue Jays to possibly experiment with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in center field or back within the infield, depending on where Blue Jays management deems fit (even if it is a utility role). If Tsutsugo’s defence truly is below average, then Gurriel Jr. can go back to the outfield and the Japanese power hitter can move into the first base depth charts, no harm, no foul.

Tsutsugo does not have the minimum 9 years of service time in the NPB and has already been posted by his team, the Yokohama DeNA BayStars. While he has played in ten seasons within the NPB, he does have the necessary amount of service time to be deemed an international free agent through the posting system.

This means that MLB teams now have 30 days to reach an agreement with the Japanese slugger, and cannot be posted until next season if a deal is not reached during that timeframe. This could be a deterrent from teams to sign the left-hander, as any MLB team who signs Tsutsugo will owe money to the player and the club.

Shogo Akiyama

The Toronto Blue Jays have also expressed interest in center fielder Shogo Akiyama, who also bats from the left side like Tsutsugo.

With 1207 games under his belt, Akiyama has crafted a career .301/.376/.454 slash line along with 116 home runs, 513 RBI’s, 112 stolen bases and 526 walks. Pretty impressive numbers that span over a 9-year career during his time in Japan.

Akiyama is regarded for his contact hitting ability, which has also developed some considerable pop over the past few seasons. When looking over his career 116 home runs, 69 of them have been hit within the past three seasons. His speed on the bases is also a plus, which could bode well if he puts a ball into the gap or down the line to generate extra base hits. He would be a good fit for the top of the order, with power bats following his ability to get on base.

Akiyama has spent the majority of his career in center field, and when trying to find accurate details on his defensive ability, nothing outstanding comes forward. His defence is described as ‘average’ to ‘below average’, which doesn’t sound great considering Ross Atkins was planning on going out to get a better defensive option in center field this Winter.

The Blue Jays and Shogo Akiyama do match well together, given his experience in an experienced baseball league and the fact he can hit for contact and is starting to generate some power. While his defence is nothing spectacular, it’s hard to pass on a player with that type of hitting ability and keeps on improving over time. He understandably comes with risk just like any free agent, but the potential to be a top of the order bat as well as filling a hole in the outfield may be too intriguing to pass up.

Another tantalizing reason to sign Akiyama is that he is not tied to any posting fee (unlike Tsutsugo) and is just regarded as an international free agent. He has the minimum amount of service time (9 years), and his Japanese club, the Seibo Lions, will not be able to collect any fees if he signs in the MLB. The Lions are prepared to offer a long term deal to persuade him from signing in the MLB, but the free-agent does have options open.

The End Result

I personally feel like the Blue Jays may be better off to sign Tsutsugo over Akiyama, even if the former requires more money to sign. Signing both players may seem like a bit of a stretch considering interest in both players across the league, so signing one would be better than none.

The reason I prefer Tsutsugo is because of his ability to play two positions of need for the Blue Jays, the outfield and first base. I understand that we don’t have a need in left field, but by moving the slugger to left allows the Blue Jays to experiment with Gurriel Jr., whether it be in center field or the infield.

By signing Tsutsugo, the Blue Jays would also be able to allow the prospects to battle for the center field spot, something that Derek Fisher, Anthony Alford, or Billy McKinney may be able to wrestle away from Teoscar Hernandez with a strong spring training. It allows the Blue Jays to consider all prospect options in a time when the Blue Jays are rebuilding for the future.

I also like the possible tandem of Tsutsugo and Tellez switching between 1B and the DH role, which will keep both players fresh throughout the entire season. Tsutsugo also has experience at 3B, which could be useful when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. needs a day off either on the bench or as the DH, putting Tellez at 1B. This allows all the power bats to stay in the lineup without comprising the health and longevity over the season.

If the Blue Jays do end up signing one of these players, it would be the first time the Toronto Blue Jays have ever drafted a player through the Japanese posting system. They wouldn’t be the first Japanese player(s) to suit up for the Blue Jays (remember Munenori Kawaski?), but I highly doubt the Blue Jays would be able nor would they want to sign both players.08

Next. Analyzing the top international players within the farm system. dark

There will always be a risk in signing players like Tsutsugo or Akiyama, who will have to transition to play MLB style baseball, but established baseball players with excellent pedigrees don’t come around too often, and maybe too impressive to ignore this off-season.