Why Mariners could find ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto interesting

Nov 21, 2023, 1:02 AM

Seattle Mariners Yoshinobu Yamamoto free agency...

Yoshinobu Yamamoto of Japan pitches against Mexico during the 2023 World Baseball Classic. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

There’s no more clear of a need for the Seattle Mariners this offseason than offensive help. The idea has been floated, though, that the way to get that help is by adding more pitching.

Follow that? OK, let’s do a quick breakdown.

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The thought process is that this class of free agents is low on well-known hitters, and the Mariners don’t have much of a recent history in signing impact bats anyways. What may be Seattle’s best asset, though, is its group of young, impressive starting pitchers. So if the Mariners this offseason were able to sign a front-line pitcher, which they have had success with in recent years, it would allow them to use one of their younger arms in a trade for a big name to help the lineup.

MLB Network insider Jon Morosi has just the pitcher to get that scenario rolling, too: Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a Japanese star who will be posted Tuesday by Nippon Professional Baseball’s Orix Blue Wave as available to MLB teams for a 45-day period.

“I think that he is, in a lot of respects, the most intriguing free-agent pitcher out there,” Morosi said Monday during his weekly conversation with Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob. “… I actually think that there is a better chance the Mariners find a way to get Yamamoto, and then as a next domino effect trade a pitcher for a bat, than it would be to go out there and sign (Shohei) Ohtani right now. I think that’s in a lot of ways the higher percentage play.”

Doubt has been cast since last week on the Mariners making a serious run at Ohtani, the 2023 American League MVP, with MLB.com Mariners reporter Daniel Kramer writing: “Industry sources familiar with the club’s thinking told MLB.com this week that landing Ohtani doesn’t appear to be within the Mariners’ realistic agenda this offseason.”

Yamamoto, on the other hand, could be a realistic fit for Seattle, which may then lead to the team building a trade package around a pitcher like Logan Gilbert, Bryce Miller or Bryan Woo to get an available slugger on a short-term deal like Mets first baseman Pete Alonso or Padres outfielder Juan Soto.

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“There’s a lot of pitching out there, whether it’s Yamamoto or others, even whether it’s (2023 National League Cy Young Award winner Blake) Snell or Eduardo Rodríguez – go down the list, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery,” Morosi said. “You sign one of those pitchers, then that allows you to have the capital – whether it’s Bryce Miller or Bryan Woo – to then turn around and trade for a bat. And I’m not saying that you would necessarily give up one of those guys for a rental, which is what Alonso would be and Juan Soto would be.

“I just think that you have to fish where the fish are, so to speak, and right now they are in the realm of starting pitching. So get your guy, upgrade your pitching, and then take a second look at the chessboard here – who you could trade, where the opportunities are? – and then make the move from there.”

Who is Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

If the Mariners would able to score Yamamoto, it would be an acquisition worth getting excited about. He stood out on the World Baseball Classic champion Japan team last spring, going 1-0 in two starts with 12 strikeouts to two walks, allowing two earned runs on four hits over 7 1/3 innings. And in NPB play he’s been especially dominant, winning the Sawamura Award – the NPB’s version of the Cy Young – in each of the last three seasons.

In 2023, Yamamoto went 16-6 with a 1.21 ERA, 0.884 WHIP, 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, and a 6.04 strikeouts to walk ratio for the Blue Wave, who were Mariners great Ichiro Suzuki’s team when he played in Japan. Additionally, he allowed just two home runs in 23 starts, and the year prior he gave up just two homers in 24 starts.

“He’s a high-end pitcher with a really devastating forkball breaking pitch – a splitter, effectively, similar somewhat to what (Mets All-Star Kodai) Senga throws,” Morosi said. “So a lot of excitement. A lot of different (MLB) GMs actually went over to watch him pitch in person this year, which doesn’t always happen. Brian Cashman of the Yankees happened to be there on the day that he threw a no-hitter. So there’s just a lot of really cool enthusiasm for Yamamoto right now.”

Senga, a fellow right-hander who made the jump from Japan to join the Mets last offseason, is a logical comparison for the 5-foot-10, 176-pound Yamamoto. The latter pitcher may be better, though.

“We just saw Kodai Senga come over this year, and he was an NL Rookie of the Year top candidate. Basically Yamamoto has been described to me as being a tick better than him,” Morosi said. “So we’re talking about he’ll walk in here likely and be one of the top pitchers in the league in his first season. There are some who believe that his immediate Year 1 impact could approximate what Yu Darvish did when he first came over, so we’re talking about a star. … There are people in the industry who look at what Yamamoto can do on the mound and are frankly as excited about him (as a free agent this year as Ohtani) just immediately because of the need for pitching and their belief that his pitching will work right away.”

There’s one more thing that makes Yamamoto especially intriguing: his age. While Senga debuted in the big leagues at 30 years old this year, Yamamoto just turned 25. As Morosi explained, it’s rare for teams to get a crack at signing a pitcher with his level of talent at that young of an age.

“He’s one of the best pitchers in the world who’s in his mid-20s. And the unique thing is that pitchers who are in their mid-20s very rarely hit free agency domestically here in the US because they’re either still getting their way through the arbitration system – especially if they went to college – or their team has already signed them up long-term,” Morosi said. “It doesn’t quite work that same way in Japan, so it’s a unique opportunity.

“His pitch-making ability, performance are all very good. It’s hard to say that he’s better than the Cy Young winner in Blake Snell, or Sonny Gray or Aaron Nola, but it’s the age that he is that people are really intrigued by, and they believe that he’s got a pitch mix that’s going to work in Major League Baseball for a long time.”

Free agency has been slow going thus far, but Yamamoto’s 45-day posting that begins Tuesday has the potential to jump start at least the pitching market.

“It doesn’t have to take 45 days – that’s the really key thing,” Morosi said. “They could wrap that up in a matter of 10 or 12 days, and I think a lot of people around the industry hope that that happens because once he goes off the board, then the rest of the pitching market will likely follow.”

Listen to the full Wyman and Bob conversation with MLB Network insider Jon Morosi in the podcast at this link or in the player near the top of this post.

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Why Mariners could find ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto interesting