All eyes are now on Yamamoto. Here's where things stand

December 12th, 2023

Now that Shohei Ohtani is off the market, all eyes in the baseball world have turned to Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the star Japanese pitcher who stands as the next major domino to fall on this year’s market.

Yamamoto, who has won three straight Sawamura Awards (Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young) and has earned Pacific League Most Valuable Player honors in each of the past three seasons, is one of the most highly anticipated players to come to the Majors from Nippon Professional Baseball in years.

Here’s a look at where the Yamamoto sweepstakes stand.

Who are the main suitors here?

Yamamoto has already met with at least three teams -- the Yankees, Mets and Giants -- and is expected to sit down with more this week. This includes the Red Sox in the coming days, according to a source. Two or three more teams, including the Blue Jays, will also likely meet with him, sources said.

Mets owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns flew to Japan to meet with the pitcher prior to the Winter Meetings, making it clear that he’s their top priority this offseason.

Yamamoto met Sunday with the Giants, who have been said to be very interested in the pitcher. After missing out on Aaron Judge and having its deal with Carlos Correa fall apart last winter, San Francisco could take a big swing to land the best starting pitcher on the market.

The Yankees sat down with Yamamoto on Monday, making them the third known team to meet with him. There are expected to be more meetings with other clubs this week, and while the Giants plan to make a major play for Yamamoto, most within the industry are primed for a bidding war between the two New York clubs.

Who else should we be watching?

While the Yankees and Mets figure to be the two most aggressive teams pursuing Yamamoto and the Giants are firmly in the mix, the list of suitors is going to be much larger when all is said and done.

The Blue Jays, who had set aside a lot of money to sign Shohei Ohtani, could pivot toward Yamamoto, who would form an impressive 1-2 punch with Kevin Gausman atop Toronto’s rotation. With Ohtani and Juan Soto no longer options, it’s also possible that Toronto could decide to pursue Cody Bellinger to add a big bat rather than focusing on pitching.

The Cubs and Red Sox are also expected to take their shot at Yamamoto, though neither is likely to get involved in a bidding war if the Yankees and Mets try to one-up each other, as many expect.

The Dodgers are the wild card in the sweepstakes, after agreeing to terms with Ohtani on a 10-year, $700 million deal over the weekend. Ohtani will not pitch in 2024, so the Dodgers still must address their rotation issues. Thanks to the deferrals in Ohtani’s contract, Los Angeles still has plenty of payroll flexibility to work with, making the Dodgers a dangerous club to watch in the Yamamoto race.

Can Yamamoto surpass Gerrit Cole for the biggest deal ever for a pitcher?

That seems very unlikely. Initial estimates within the industry were that Yamamoto would receive a contract worth north of $200 million, the largest of the offseason for a pitcher. That number has seemingly risen in recent weeks, with many now believing the right-hander will land a deal worth at least $250 million over eight years.

Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees in December 2019, an average annual value of $36 million. Yamamoto’s deal is likely to come in south of that in terms of AAV, though a nine-year deal is quite possible in the $30-34 million range, so a $300 million total is certainly in play.

Yamamoto is only 25 years old, so while a long-term deal is likely, it’s also probable that such a deal will contain an opt-out clause after three or four years, allowing him to explore the market again at age 28 or 29 if he comes to the Majors and dominates the way he has in Japan.

What about Blake Snell? Why would someone who has never pitched in MLB get more than a two-time Cy Young Award winner?

For starters, Snell turned 31 last week, so he’s significantly older than Yamamoto. Snell also comes with a questionable track record in regards to innings pitched; in his two Cy Young seasons, the left-hander threw 180 2/3 and 180 innings, respectively, but he’s never topped 129 1/3 in any other season during his career.

Yamamoto, on the other hand, has averaged more than 185 innings per season since 2021. He has also averaged fewer than two walks per nine innings as compared to Snell’s 4.46 per nine, including an MLB-high 99 walks issued in 2023.

Snell is going to get a healthy deal this winter, but it won’t be as lengthy as Yamamoto’s, and the AAV might fall short, as well. Either way, Snell is likely to wait until Yamamoto signs before making a move of his own, since the clubs that miss out on Yamamoto might be more willing to pay up for the two-time Cy Young winner.

Which other pitchers are waiting for Yamamoto to sign?

After Snell, Jordan Montgomery is the starter whose market is most impacted by Yamamoto. Not that Montgomery will be looking at a contract close to the one Yamamoto signs, but just as is the case with Snell, the teams that miss out on the Yamamoto sweepstakes will still be looking to add an impact arm to their rotation.

The trade market will likely begin to pick up once Yamamoto signs, as the Brewers (Corbin Burnes), Rays (Tyler Glasnow), White Sox (Dylan Cease) and Guardians (Shane Bieber) might be able to extract more of a return from pitching-needy clubs. Cease has two more years of club control before hitting free agency, while those other three will be free agents after the 2024 campaign.