Originally found on Fox Sports:
Major League Baseball
Dec. 18, 2023 7:40 a.m. ET
We have arrived at the wine and dine portion of the Yoshinobu Yamamoto sweepstakes, with reports of owner Steve Cohen having the coveted right-hander over for dinner this past weekend along with several other key members of the Mets organization. This is the second such meeting between Yamamoto and the Mets, as Cohen and general manager David Stearns visited with him in his native Japan before the winter meetings.
These would seem to be ultra-promising signs toward the Mets securing a deal with someone who is clearly their top target this winter, but landing Yamamoto is hardly a sure thing. The Yankees, too, arranged an additional meeting with Yamamoto on Sunday — whether a meal was involved was unclear — further signaling their ambitions to deliver an impactful encore to the Juan Soto trade. And if a potential bidding war between New York clubs wasn’t spicy enough on its own, five other clubs, including a Dodgers team that’s full steam ahead as the Shohei Ohtani era begins, have reportedly demonstrated significant interest in the 25-year-old.
As Yamamoto’s $250 million-plus decision nears, so does an expected domino effect for the rest of the starting pitching market, via free agency and trade. Only one team will reel him in, leaving many others left to pivot to alternatives. The good news for those runners-up: many such options still remain.
Roughly half of my top 30 free-agent pitchers are available, with Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery leading the way and several second-tier options like Marcus Stroman, Lucas Giolito and Japanese lefty Shōta Imanaga also looking for new homes. Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Pepiot — two of the nine starters I identified last month as prominent trade targets — were just dealt for each other, bringing guys like Dylan Cease and Shane Bieber to the forefront as the next arms that could be on the move.
With a flurry of deals expected to materialize once Yamamoto signs, here’s a look at his seven suitors’ chances of landing him and where they could turn should they miss out.
Why they could sign him: The Yankees’ pursuit of Yamamoto feels a lot like their pursuit of Gerrit Cole when he hit the open market and eventually landed the largest deal ever given to a pitcher. Yamamoto is someone whom the organization has coveted for years, and there appears to be mutual interest, as the three-time Nippon Professional Baseball MVP hardly seems shy about beginning his big-league career under the brightest lights the game has to offer. New York has yet to spend a single dollar in free agency, but owner Hal Steinbrenner appears plenty ready to open his wallet to help the Evil Empire bounce back from its most disappointing season in decades.
What if they don’t? The Yankees unquestionably made the right move in dealing for Soto, but the move did deal a serious blow to their rotation depth, which has in turn heightened the need to land an arm of Yamamoto’s caliber even further. Add in the three pitchers dealt to Boston for Alex Verdugo and three more upper-minors arms scooped up in the Rule 5 draft, and New York’s organizational depth chart on the mound has thinned out considerably in recent weeks. For as much of a no-brainer as Yamamoto is as a Yankees target, identifying which other free-agent pitchers fit in the Bronx is far more difficult.
Snell makes little sense; he’s an even more extreme version — for better or for worse — of Carlos Rodón, who struggled mightily after signing a huge deal last winter. Would Montgomery return to the Bronx for the right price? He would seem to have ample other suitors, but maybe. Does a flyball pitcher like Imanaga or Giolito fit well in Yankee Stadium? Probably not. Is Stroman interested in pitching in a new borough after his up-and-down time in Queens? His ground-ball style could play reasonably well. Beyond those top names, any of the next tier of options — Michael Lorenzen, Mike Clevinger, Sean Manaea — would seem awfully risky to gamble on as stabilizers for a rotation that needs more certainty than anything.
If not Yamamoto, the Yankees’ best option to bolster the rotation might be for Brian Cashman to start working the phones again via trade. This is still a system with enviable depth, and we’ve already seen the organization’s willingness to deal from it to improve the big-league club. Whether it’s Corbin Burnes or Bieber or even going big for Cease or another arm with multiple years of control, I wouldn’t rule out New York pivoting to another swap if Yamamoto heads elsewhere.
Why they could sign him: If ever there was a time for Cohen to flex his financial might, this would seem to be it. With Jacob deGrom‘s days in Queens already a distant memory and the Justin Verlander/Max Scherzer era over in a blink, the outlook of the Mets’ pitching staff remains in an extreme state of uncertainty beyond Kodai Senga. Yamamoto epitomizes everything the Mets could possibly want in a long-term anchor atop the rotation. Now, it’s just a matter of outbidding — and out-recruiting — their Bronx rivals for the hottest name on the market.
What if they don’t? If the Mets are to spend exorbitantly this winter, it sure feels like Yamamoto or bust. Otherwise, I’d expect shorter-term plays along the lines of the one-year pact they agreed to with Luis Severino. James Paxton and Frankie Montas come to mind as candidates who could either raise the ceiling for the Mets’ rotation or be flipped at the deadline should a playoff push seem out of reach. Any pursuit of a multiyear deal would need to be for someone who projects to remain in their prime as the Mets hope to re-enter their apparent window of contention in 2025 and beyond, and it’s much harder to identify those. As the Mets continue their efforts to revitalize the farm system, it seems highly unlikely they would deal a future asset for a short-term solution on the trade market like Burnes or Bieber.
Why they could sign him: Heck, I’d be interested in joining the Dodgers, too, if Ohtani took time out of his day to recruit me to be his teammate. Ohtani was part of an impressive Dodgers contingent that recently met with Yamamoto in their effort to amplify their new super team even further. Of course, Yamamoto already knows what it’s like to be Ohtani’s teammate, having just won the World Baseball Classic alongside him with Samurai Japan in March. If Yamamoto’s vision for his MLB future is one solely focused on collecting more trophies, he won’t find a better option than joining Ohtani in Dodger Blue. As for how much of his upcoming monster contract he’d be willing to defer to the 2040s? We’ll cross that bridge if we get there.
What if they don’t? Rather than wait for Yamamoto’s decision to determine their next course of action, the Dodgers already struck big with the acquisition and extension of Glasnow, lessening the need for another frontline arm. But dealing away Pepiot as part of the deal has left the final two rotation spots — currently projected to be occupied by Ryan Yarbrough and Emmet Sheehan — as areas that could still be targeted for an upgrade. Should they seek to offset the durability risks associated with Glasnow with someone more dependable, either Montgomery or Giolito would make a ton of sense, though Montgomery will surely command a much larger guarantee. That said, this is also still a farm system with the depth to pull off a deal for Cease or Burnes if they prefer the trade route. Yamamoto or not, I expect them to add another starter one way or another.
Why they could sign him: None of Yamamoto’s suitors needs a frontline starter more desperately than Boston, and the Red Sox have virtually no guaranteed money committed to any pitchers beyond 2024. Boston’s farm system, while drastically improved in recent years, remains far more rich with position player talent than pitchers who project as impact starters at the big-league level. These circumstances should motivate Boston to be as aggressive as possible in its push to add a pitcher as young and as talented as Yamamoto.
Pitching in Fenway Park and the prospect of joining a team that just finished in last place might work against the Red Sox’s recruiting efforts, but if money ends up talking the loudest, they should be able to prepare an offer on par with their competition. While Yamamoto alone might not propel Boston back into American League East contention, landing him would signify a massive step in the right direction — not to mention devastate many in Yankees world hoping, if not expecting, to see him end up in pinstripes.
What if they don’t? Whether now is the right time to cash in future chips for immediate impact is for new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow to decide, but there’s reason to believe the Red Sox are at least considering such a path. Reports that Boston engaged Seattle regarding some of its young pitchers and were “rebuffed” suggests that the Red Sox are unsurprisingly focused on arms that can help beyond 2024. This would seemingly rule out a pursuit of a rental like Burnes or Bieber, but maybe leaves the door open for a run at Cease (under team control through 2025) if the right deal arises. Miami is another team like Seattle with a wealth of controllable young pitchers that could realistically line up with Boston for a deal for a young hitter.
As for free agency, it boils down to whether the Red Sox have ambitions of contending in 2024 or merely being competitive. If they really want to step on the gas, a run at Snell seems plenty plausible. Giolito, Stroman or Imanaga make more sense if the goal is to stabilize the rotation more than shoot for the moon. Montgomery splits the difference and arguably represents the perfect target outside of Yamamoto — and again, would succeed in the category of agitating their biggest rival. With money to spend and a glaring need, expect Boston to add to its staff in a meaningful way sooner rather than later.
Why they could sign him: Having finally landed a big fish in free agency in the form of KBO star Jung Hoo Lee, there’s no reason for the Giants to turn back now in their quest to add impact this winter, especially on the pitching front. Not only is their projected payroll for 2024 still almost $80 million below the first luxury tax line after signing Lee, the Giants have exceptionally few commitments beyond 2024 outside of Lee and Logan Webb, opening up the possibility for both a lengthy and lucrative offer for Yamamoto.
What if they don’t? The Giants occupy a similar space as the Red Sox in the sense that it’s unclear just how good they think they can be in 2024, with the rest of this winter going a long way toward clarifying that. Both teams need pitching badly, but unlike in Boston where the hitter-friendly home ballpark might scare some potential targets off, Oracle Park could have the opposite effect for free-agent pitchers looking for a more cozy run prevention environment with their next team. And with so much payroll still to play with, there’s no reason San Francisco shouldn’t be going hard after more pitching at every level of the market from Snell on down.
Whether former Padres manager Bob Melvin would advocate for or against a reunion with the dynamite yet volatile left-hander is unclear, but he certainly fits what the Giants are looking for in terms of the kind of upside that could dramatically swing their fortunes for the better. It’s honestly tough to find a free-agent pitcher who doesn’t make some sense for San Francisco, but there’s a big difference between splurging for Snell or Montgomery or settling for another collection of safer short-term commitments. The latter will be a much harder sell for a fan base that still craves star power. Free agency will likely need to be the path to improvement, though. It’s much harder to imagine the Giants — with a below-average farm system — can put together the best offer to land one of the top arms on the trade market.
Why they could sign him: After retaining Aaron Nola earlier this winter, Dave Dombrowski communicated that the Phillies were fairly satisfied with their projected 2024 rotation. What, then, to make of Philadelphia’s reported meeting with Yamamoto last week? Perhaps, the Phillies are thinking longer term with Zack Wheeler’s free agency looming next winter — in which case, Yamamoto’s youth makes him a far more sensible target in that regard than someone like Snell or Montgomery. While no one can question Philly’s willingness to spend big in free agency, the club sorely lacks any semblance of a track record when it comes to landing Japanese-born talent. The Phillies are one of just five teams (along with the Rockies, Marlins, Nationals, and Astros) that have never signed a player directly from NPB. Still, their meeting this late in the process is noteworthy, even if they remain a long shot.
What if they don’t? If we take Dombrowski at his word regarding his comfort level with the rotation, it’s likely Yamamoto is the lone starting pitcher on the market the Phils identified as worthy of pursuing seriously. Assuming they miss out, it feels far more likely for them to explore the top end of a relief market that remains robust with options, including Josh Hader, Jordan Hicks and Robert Stephenson.
Why they could sign him: Their current rotation hardly looks like one in dire need of upgrading, but Toronto hasn’t been shy with its aggressive pursuits in free agency in recent years. Yamamoto is the kind of pitcher who fits every team, and steering him away from division rivals Boston and New York could be enough incentive on its own to make a run at the talented right-hander. That said, I’m also not sure if we should read the Blue Jays’ reported willingness to break the bank for Ohtani as an indication of their eagerness to blast beyond the luxury tax line no matter what — and it sure sounds like the Yamamoto bidding is headed for a number that pushes him outside the realm of possibility for a Toronto roster that has far greater needs than adding a starting pitcher.
What if they don’t? As with the Phillies, Yamamoto might be the exception for the Blue Jays as a free-agent target at a position of relative strength. If they are still set on adding pitching, Cuban right-hander Yariel Rodriguez — who will pitch next season at age 27 and slotted in at No. 30 on my FA rankings — could be a nice fit as a long-term investment. His experience as both a starter and reliever could afford Toronto more flexibility than if it brought in someone expecting to make 25-plus starts right away. In general, I’d still expect Toronto to prioritize filling out its lineup more than adding another arm.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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