ST. LOUIS – We’re nearly a week into MLB free agency. There haven’t been many big splashes yet, but it might not take long in a free agent market with plenty of upside, especially for pitching.
Cy Young candidates Blake Snell and Sonny Gray are available. So are bona fide innings-eater Aaron Nola and new World Series champion Jordan Montgomery. Hitting-pitching phenom Shohei Ohtani is also a first-time free agent, but he could be sidelined from pitching for at least a year after a torn UCL.
Even with stiff competition, one free agent pitcher stands out to many teams above the others. And he has yet to throw a pitch in Major League Baseball. His name? Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
At 25 years old, Yamamoto is one of the most decorated pitchers in recent Japanese baseball history. He made several key starts leading up to Japan’s World Baseball Classic title last spring. He is also a three-time Japanese Triple Crown winner in the Nippon Professional Baseball League and a three-time Eiji Sawamura Award winner, the overseas equivalent to an MLB Cy Young Award.
This past season, Yamamoto finished with a remarkable 17-6 record, backed by a 1.16 ERA and 176 strikeouts over 171 innings pitched for the Orix Buffaloes. He recently finished up paperwork to transfer from Japanese professional baseball to the MLB stage.
Yamamoto is due for a nice payday, one that baseball analysts believe could fetch upwards of $200 million over several years.
Could Yoshinobu Yamamoto be a fit for the St. Louis Cardinals?
In terms of need, absolutely. Leading up to the offseason, the Cardinals front office expressed a desire to add three new starting pitchers ahead of the new season. With few pitching prospects right on the cusp of starting duties, it seems wise to invest in some long-term deals for the rotation.
In terms of dollars, that’s what remains to be determined. The Cardinals have never spent more than $100 million on a pitching contract or to sign a free agent who hasn’t previously played with the ballclub. That could change this offseason, with St. Louis reportedly also interested in the aforementioned duo of Aaron Nola and Sonny Gray. Though lead Cardinals executive John Mozeliak recently mentioned that payroll could look similar to last season.
Perhaps one competitive edge the Cardinals have over others is outfielder Lars Nootbaar. The outfielder became great friends with Yamamoto and many others during the World Baseball Classic. He also tells Cardinals’ MLB.com writer John Denton, “I want to help Yoshi in any way that I can,” after returning to Japan for an offseason event.
Oddsmakers say St. Louis is certainly an option for Yamamoto, but there appear to be some other front-runners in the sweepstakes. According to several sports betting firms, the Cardinals carry the following odds..
- Bookies.com: +750 (15/2) and a projected 11% chance, fifth-best among MLB teams
- DraftKings.com: +1100 (11/1) and a projected 8% chance, seventh-best among MLB teams
- Sportsbookreview.com: +1100 (11/1), eighth-best among MLB teams
- Gambling911.com: +1200 (12/1), eighth-best among MLB teams
The New York Mets are a consensus favorite for Yamamoto among many with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers also likely to pursue his talents.
Nothing’s guaranteed, but it appears the Cardinals will need to step up their game on spending and hope Nootbaar’s friendship pays off for a St. Louis-bound Yamamoto to become a realistic possibility. He could make a final decision in a matter of days or weeks, but likely before the start of the new calendar year.