CINCINNATI -- How pleasant of a surprise has Yoshi Tsutsugo been?
When the Pirates signed Tsutsugo on Aug. 16, it marked the third club he’d been with in 2021. The Dodgers released him from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Aug. 14, only two months after they acquired him from the Rays for a player to be named later.
Now, it seems Tsutsugo’s name is in the lineup every day with Pittsburgh, as it was in Monday’s 9-5 loss to the Reds at Great American Ball Park. And though the Pirates spoiled the early advantage he provided, he showed why he’s turned to again and again.
Tsutsugo hit a laser shot to right field in his first at-bat of the game, followed in the next at-bat by a homer from Bryan Reynolds to give the Pirates an early edge. Then, the right fielder ripped another ball at 106.2 mph for an RBI single to make it a three-run lead in the third inning. But the Reds rallied back, fueled by four home runs.
When the Pirates moved Ke’Bryan Hayes to the leadoff spot from his home in the No. 2 spot over the first half of the year, the question naturally cropped up: Who would take over? Tsutsugo has all but cemented himself there.
“He continues to have consistent at-bats, consistent swings,” manager Derek Shelton said, “and we feel good having him hit behind [the leadoff man] and in front of Bryan [Reynolds].”
The pure hitting numbers are incredible for Tsutsugo as a Pirate. In 85 at-bats, he’s posted a 1.076 OPS fueled by a .682 slugging percentage with six doubles, one triple and eight homers among his 26 hits.
The value numbers are eye-popping. Tsutsugo entered Monday’s game with only 30 games played with the Pirates, yet the third-most offensive wins above replacement entering Monday, per Baseball-Reference (0.9) of any player on the current roster, trailing only All-Star Reynolds (5.7) and everyday catcher Jacob Stallings (1.2), who is on the seven-day concussion list. Among all qualified National League hitters entering the game, Tsutsugo's weighted runs created plus of 172 is the 13th best since he made his Bucs debut on Aug. 16.
With the Japanese slugger entering free agency this offseason, it goes without saying that Tsutsugo is attracting a lot of chatter from fans about a potential re-signing in 2022. Based on comments earlier this month from general manager Ben Cherington, don’t expect anything on the near horizon.
“[We] haven’t spoken about anything past this year,” Cherington said. “I would expect we would want to wait until after the year to think about that, have a conversation about that. Certainly, he’s made a great impression.”
When the Pirates signed Tsutsugo, they knew he could contribute and that he was a good teammate. It would probably be hard to say they saw all this coming. But even with all the offensive upside, there are some questions to answer before any type of deal discussions.
First of all, there are questions about his fit as a fielder. The Pirates have a gap in right field for the time being, but that’s the weaker of Tsutsugo’s two primary positions. First base would be a better fit for him, but would it be for the team? The Bucs have Colin Moran under team control until 2024.
Plus, the Moran vs. Tsutsugo question raises an interesting point: If Tsutsugo’s value is so apparent as it has been with the Pirates over this span, other teams will take note, especially American League contenders looking for a DH. If the Bucs are unsure they can make a push in 2022, does it make sense to pay a potentially strong price when they have a veteran first baseman already?
Then there’s the question of playing time for younger players. First-base prospect Mason Martin, who was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Monday after hitting 22 homers at Double-A Altoona, is likely on the cusp of the Majors. Michael Chavis is no longer a prospect, but the former Top 100 prospect has played 82 games at first base in MLB.
It’s a complicated question, and we likely won’t have answers in the short term. But there are still two weeks for the Pirates to see how strongly Tsutsugo can finish his statement second half.
“We feel like we’ve known him for a while, back to work by our Far East crew when he was in Japan,” Cherington said, “but obviously now getting to know him better here, it’s been fun. We’ll see where that leaves us after the season.”