What Yuki Matsui will bring to Padres' bullpen

December 24th, 2023

The Padres have spent their offseason searching for bullpen help, and they landed some Friday, making lefty reliever Yuki Matsui their first big league free-agent signing of the winter.

The five-year deal is expected to be worth $28 million and includes opt-outs after 2026 and 2027, as well as an injury clause that can convert the fifth year of the contract into a club option, a source told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand.

Matsui posted a 2.40 ERA over 10 seasons in Japan with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Across the past three seasons, as he shifted to a one-inning relief role, he registered a 1.42 mark with 214 strikeouts in 152 innings pitched, making him one of the most dominant relief pitchers in NPB.

“Obviously a great track record of really consistent excellence,” said Padres general manager A.J. Preller. “This nine- or 10-year run out of the bullpen, he’s been one of the best closers in the game. … It’s three pitches -- fastball, split, slider. He’s been just very consistent in terms of getting outs, getting strikeouts.”

What are the Padres getting?
Matsui is certainly unique, in both his stature and his arsenal. An undersized left-hander at just 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, Matsui misses bats with his plus splitter. He pairs it with a high-spin fastball that sits between 92-94 mph and tops out at 96. Matsui also offers a slider as a third offering.

That combo helped Matsui strike out 32.4% of the batters he faced last season. One point of concern, however, may be Matsui’s penchant for walks. Even with his solid 5.9% walk rate in 2023, his career mark is 10.9%. (For reference, the MLB-average walk rate this past season was 8.3%.)

Still, Matsui has been as dominant as any Japanese reliever for most of the past decade. Omit his age-18 debut season, which contained Matsui's only 17 starts, and his career ERA drops to 2.10. The 28-year-old Matsui was a multi-inning reliever for the majority of his NPB career, but he has operated as a one-inning arm for the past three seasons.

Where does Matsui fit?
Tough to say at this point, considering the Padres are almost certainly destined to add more pitching. But he’s at least in line for a high-leverage role.

“Somewhere at the back part of the game,” Preller said, when asked for Matsui’s fit. “We’ll see how the ‘pen unfolds and what other options come up this offseason. But he’s a guy that could pitch anywhere late in the game … a guy that’s shook hands at the end of games as a closer.”

When Josh Hader hit free agency, right-hander Robert Suarez was the internal favorite to fill the closer vacancy. He and Matsui are now the two likeliest candidates for that job, with Preller noting there’s been “nothing promised.” Other late-inning options include Tom Cosgrove and Steven Wilson.

Perhaps most notably, the Matsui addition balances the San Diego bullpen in a big way. With the departures of Hader, Tim Hill, Ray Kerr and Drew Pomeranz, Cosgrove was the only reliable left-handed option in the San Diego bullpen.

Where does the Padres' bullpen stand?
Incomplete, still. With the addition of Matsui, the Padres have a foundation consisting of Suarez, Matsui, Cosgrove, Wilson and Enyel De Los Santos, who arrived from Cleveland in the Scott Barlow trade.

They have other options who could compete for the final 2-3 places, including swing men Jhony Brito and Randy Vásquez, arrivals in the Soto deal.

But bullpens are volatile. For all the success Cosgrove, Wilson and De Los Santos had last season, the Padres would be wise to continue adding to their setup mix.

What's next?
Yes, the Padres could use another reliever (or two). But the addition of Matsui arguably shifts their pitching focus back to the rotation.

On the whole, however, their most glaring need remains in the outfield. With Soto and Trent Grisham off to New York, Fernando Tatis Jr. is the lone returning starter. José Azocar is a favorite for a bench spot, and No. 13 prospect Jakob Marsee, the Arizona Fall League MVP, could also compete for playing time.

But the Padres’ foremost goal this offseason should be acquiring an outfielder -- ideally a lefty bopper who can break up their righty-heavy top half of the lineup.