The Cardinals are armed with tens of millions of dollars to offer free-agent pitchers this offseason, and they are also highly motivated to change their fortunes for 2024 following a '23 where they slumped to 71-91 and last place in the National League Central.
However, their biggest force in recruiting difference-making arms to St. Louis to ensure that they are once again competing for a World Series might be a guy who was most recently seen lurking around Japan in a bucket hat, mask and sunglasses to protect his identity.
No, there wasn’t anything nefarious going on. It was just Japanese World Baseball Classic hero and Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar trying to keep a low profile and avoid a crush of autograph and selfie requests while spending two weeks in the country on a recent promotional tour.
A Cardinals club with just two established starting pitchers under contract for 2024 -- right-hander Miles Mikolas and lefty Steven Matz -- is looking for “volume” in terms of pitching this offseason, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said last week at the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. One potential target for the Redbirds could be Japanese fireballer Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and that’s where the personable and infinitely likable Nootbaar comes into play.
Not only were Yamamoto and Nootbaar teammates and friends on the Japanese squad that took down Team USA in the championship game of the WBC, but they also have a very close family connection that could come into play as the Cardinals attempt to lure the 25-year-old right-hander to St. Louis.
“I want to help Yoshi in any way that I can,” Nootbaar said after recently returning from a trip that involved autograph signings, speaking engagements and meetings regarding potential advertising opportunities. “I don’t know about the legality of it, and I don’t want to step on any toes, but if Yamamoto or any of the guys have questions, I want to be there to help.
“My mom talks to [Yamamoto’s] mom daily,” Nootbaar continued. “I went and saw him throw in his first playoff game, and I sat with his mom at the game. We chatted a little bit, but there wasn’t anything that I could tell her that she didn’t already know because my mom had already filled her in [about Nootbaar playing for the Cardinals]. Yoshi and Roki Sasaki, the flamethrower and young kid, our moms all talk daily. I have a great relationship with both of those guys, and now that Yoshi is coming over to MLB, I’ve been talking to him a little bit more, and I plan on seeing him again later this offseason.”
While Shohei Ohtani is undoubtedly the top free agent on the market this offseason, Yamamoto might be the second-most sought-after talent because of his abilities as a dominant pitcher. This past season for the Orix Buffaloes, the two-time Pacific League MVP was 17-6 with a 1.16 ERA and 176 strikeouts in 171 innings. He also performed well under the pressure of the WBC, going 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA while striking out 12 hitters in 7 1/3 innings over two games.
Nootbaar, who had a Cardinals-best .367 on-base percentage in 2023 to go along with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs, is confident that Yamamoto’s stuff will play well at the MLB level.
“A lot of times in the NPB, they are just trying to put the bat on the ball and pray for a [high batting average on balls in play], but Yoshi is throwing that splitter at 89-91 [mph], and then it just falls off the table,” he raved. “It’s a legitimate pitch that is really gross. He’s really good.”
"Good" is one way to describe the hero’s welcome that Nootbaar got upon landing in Japan. Joel Wolfe, the executive vice president of Wasserman’s baseball division, accompanied Nootbaar on the promotional tour and said he was blown away at how Japanese baseball fans adored the Cardinals' outfielder.
“We were joking that traveling with Lars was like traveling with Justin Bieber,” said Wolfe, who noted that Nootbaar is negotiating with Adidas and Mizuno to become the face of their baseball advertising in Japan. “At first, people didn’t quite notice him or think it was really him. But then, when we were walking the streets in Tokyo, he had older ladies and older men, who would ask, ‘Nootbaar? Nootbaar?’ Lars was so gracious with them. … [Nootbaar’s] face is everywhere. In Japan with the stadium signage, Ohtani is everywhere, but we’re starting to see Nootbaar a lot everywhere.”