It is remarkable how much time and energy baseball fans are dedicating to the destination of a pitcher almost none of us have ever seen pitch before. All right, so we did get to see Yoshinobu Yamamoto in the World Baseball Classic, and there’s no question he was impressive:
Scouts rave about his stuff. His eye-boggling Nippon Professional Baseball stats absolutely translate. He’s the perfect combination of young (25) and dominant. He’s ready to go. It's all setting up perfectly for him.
But it’s still sort of wild how many fans are going to have their hearts broken when a man they’ve barely ever seen chooses a team other than theirs. Thus is the glory and the madness of the Hot Stove.
Someone is going to end up with Yamamoto, though, and it’s going to be someone who very much needs him. (Which, well, I guess is everyone.) Which team will it be? While we wait for him to reportedly meet with interested teams over Zoom next week, here’s a back-of-napkin ranking of where NPB's reigning MVP is likeliest to land.
Let’s not overcomplicate this, you know? The Yankees are the Yankees, after all, a team that has never (well, almost never) been afraid to go after big free agents, and there’s no question that the rotation is very much a problem right now. Japanese players have clearly flourished in the Bronx, he’s reportedly intrigued by all that New York aura and mystique, and did we mention that the Yankees could really use some starting pitching? If the Yanks don’t reach the World Series in 2024, it will be a stunning 15 years since they last did so. That’s the sort of drought that should lead to some urgency. It’s not going to be easy to fix everything that ails these Yankees overnight. But going after the best starting pitcher on the market is a great way to start. Just ask their newly minted Cy Young winner.
It feels like it has been a while since we had a good old-fashioned NYC free-agent bidding war. Perhaps it’s time. The Mets have been very aggressive in the free-agent market since Steve Cohen bought the team, and Yamamoto is the rare free agent who satisfies the club’s two main desires: He’s a terrific starting pitcher, and he’s young. The Mets tried getting better with old pitchers, and it makes absolute sense they’d pivot by going for a young star like Yamamoto. If there’s a player for the Mets to go all in on this winter, he's probably the guy.
3. Red Sox
Looking to make a big splash, Craig Breslow? Shohei Ohtani would obviously be the one that makes everyone’s tongues wag, but the Red Sox have an even bigger need in the rotation, one that Yamamoto would be an ideal fit for. Yamamoto is also good friends with outfielder Masataka Yoshida, a WBC teammate who had a perfectly solid first year at Fenway Park. It’s not entirely clear what direction Boston is going to go in the Breslow Era. There isn’t a much better way to signal that the Sox are back to their big-swinging days than getting the best pitcher on the market.
Doesn’t it feel like Los Angeles should be higher on this list? I’m a little worried it’s too low. The main reason the Dodgers are not considered the favorites for Yamamoto is because they are considered the favorites for Ohtani. The Dodgers have a well-stocked, highly competent front office that is perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time: They can be pursuing Ohtani and Yamamoto simultaneously, no question. And if you saw their pitching in the playoffs -- or really all of 2023 -- it’s rather clear where their immediate attention should be focused. We’re probably all sleeping on Los Angeles here.
The hiring of Craig Counsell signaled a clear seriousness of purpose here: The Cubs are looking to win now. You have to think they’re in on the Ohtani sweepstakes -- can you imagine how much fun he’d be at Wrigley? -- but they could certainly use Yamamoto, too, to sit atop their rotation, which remains curiously strikeout-light on the whole. Chicago has a lot of young position-player talent coming up through the system; locking up a No. 1 starter for the next decade could give the club quite the guy to build around … or add Ohtani to.
San Francisco has to be on any list like this, just because it’s been so obviously in need of a superstar for a while now, yet it keeps falling just short. As my colleague Mike Petriello pointed out, there’s no team that needs Ohtani more than the Giants. But if they fall short on Ohtani -- or, really, even if they don’t -- Yamamoto feels like a great fit in the Bay, particularly for a team that has proven it can consistently put players in the best position to succeed. And if they make the playoffs, who would want to face a Yamamoto/Logan Webb one-two punch?
The defending champs aren’t expected to rest on their laurels, and while the Rangers are already spending plenty on starting pitchers right now, thank you very much, having a 25-year-old pitcher around would allow them to address their present and their future. Also, can you imagine a playoff rotation of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Yamamoto and Nathan Eovaldi? Goodness.
Like the next team on this list, they’ve already made one big splash in the starting pitcher market this offseason (Aaron Nola), albeit one who was already on the team. They still could probably use another, though.
There’s clearly a need here, and you could argue that no team in baseball would be a more perfect, snug fit: Imagine this roster with a young ace to grow old with. But, well, the O’s have not made a big free-agent splash in a few years, and it’s understandable to be a bit skeptical.
Last year’s Padres might have seemed very much in the mix for someone like Yamamoto. But now? There is so much uncertainty going on with this franchise that it’s tough to see them navigating through a complicated signing like Yamamoto’s right now.