Cohen, Stearns court Yamamoto in Japan

December 6th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mets owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns flew to Japan last week to meet with  and his family, offering the clearest sign yet of the club's commitment to the top free-agent pitcher available.

A group led by Cohen, who has interjected himself in past pursuits of top free agents, met Yamamoto ahead of the Japanese right-hander’s impending trip to the United States. The Yankees, Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers have also been linked to Yamamoto, with the Yankees expected to meet with him stateside on Monday. A source previously said that Yamamoto intends to choose a team well in advance of his Jan. 4 posting deadline.

“He’s got a big decision to make,” Stearns said.

The Mets, who have been the high bidder on multiple free agents over the past three offseasons, possess enough financial strength to outbid other teams on Yamamoto if they desire -- so much so that when asked about a potential bidding war between his team and the Mets, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman replied, “I don’t know if anybody can compete with Steve Cohen.”

“He’s obviously a titan of industries and has had a lot of success and built an empire, which has allowed him to do things like [own] the Mets,” Cashman said on Tuesday. “Obviously, if it’s a player of interest, we’ll compete for him and see where that takes us, and it will be enough or it won’t be enough.”

Yamamoto, who recently won his third consecutive Sawamura Award -- Nippon Professional Baseball’s equivalent of the Cy Young -- has been highly sought-after in the marketplace in large part because of his age. Just 25, Yamamoto uniquely fits the Mets’ competitive timeline as a pitcher who should remain in his physical prime for much of this decade.

Despite his youth, Yamamoto is already one of the most decorated pitchers in NPB history. The right-hander has produced ERAs of 1.39, 1.68 and 1.16 over the last three seasons.

“He’s a potentially elite front-end starter,” Stearns said. “He’s proven that at a high level, and that’s why there are a lot of teams in the industry who like him.”

Yamamoto also shares an agent with countryman Kodai Senga, whom the Mets signed as an unrestricted free agent last December. Although Stearns declined to offer details on the nature of his pitch to Yamamoto, he acknowledged that Senga “has made it clear he’d be very supportive of having Yamamoto on our team.”

“I try not to look at it as selling,” Stearns said. “I try to look at it as providing information about who we are as an organization and what we want to do and what we want to become. This is a big decision for any free agent -- where to sign. They deserve to have all the information. They deserve to make the most informed decision and the right decision for them and their family. [T]he approach I take when I talk to any player about joining us is to try to be as transparent as possible about who we are, and why we think it’s the right opportunity for that particular person.”

The Mets hope that with assists from Senga and Cohen, they can land their top offseason target. Since his earliest days as owner, Cohen has personally been involved in the club’s highest-profile transactions, including Francisco Lindor’s extension talks in 2021, as well as the pursuits of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in free agency. This year, Cohen is directing his energies toward Yamamoto.

“I think it demonstrates Steve’s commitment to do everything he possibly can to bring players to New York,” Stearns said.

Although fallbacks exist in the marketplace, including free agents Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, none of them fit the Mets’ plans as snugly as Yamamoto. Losing out on Yamamoto could result in the Mets avoiding the top of the market completely, and instead collecting a higher volume of pitchers on one- or two-year deals.

“When you’re pursuing someone who is a very highly sought-after free agent who’s going to get a lot of money, you have to strategize around that,” Stearns said. “If we get him, that probably leads us down one path in the offseason. If we don’t get him, we’ll adjust and go down alternate paths.”