MLB hot stove: Japanese right-hander Shun Yamaguchi will be posted for MLB teams this offseason

A free-agent class relatively deep in starters is adding another name. According to the Kyodo News, right-hander Shun Yamaguchi of the Yomiuri Giants in Japan intends to move to MLB via the posting system this offseason.

"I will take a shot at my dream of playing in the majors," Yamaguchi said Monday. "I'd like to express my appreciation to Yomiuri Giants officials, manager Mr. (Tatsunori) Hara, my coaches, teammates, and fans for the past three years. I will work even harder as I pursue a new challenge."

The Giants have never made a player available through the posting system. They instead made players wait until they accrued enough service time (nine years) to qualify for international free agency, then let them leave. Hideki Matsui and Koji Uehara both came to MLB as free agents after playing for Yomiuri. Yamaguchi will be the first Yomiuri player to be posted.

Although Japanese baseball officials declined to give out the Sawamura Award for the league's top pitcher this year -- no pitcher was deemed worthy of the award -- Yamaguchi was among those considered, and he's been among the best pitchers in Japan the last two seasons. Here are his recent numbers (WAR via DeltaGraphs): 


IPERAWHIPK%BB%HR/9WAR

2017

21

6.43

1.91

9.4

6.9

2.1

--

2018

156

3.69

1.22

22.4

9.3

1.0

3.0

2019

181

2.78

1.17

26.7

8.5

0.4

6.6

The Giants play in Japan's Central League, the non-DH league, and this year the Central League averages were a 3.90 ERA with a 20.3 percent strikeout walk and an 8.7 percent walk rate. Yamaguchi was quite a bit better than the league averages at preventing earned runs and striking out hitters this past season.

Yamaguchi is one of four Japanese players looking to come to MLB this offseason, joining Yokohama DeNA BayStars slugger Yoshitomo TsutsugoHiroshima Carp infielder Ryosuke Kikuchi, and Seibu Lions outfielder Shogo Akiyama. Here is everything you need to know about Yamaguchi as he seeks a job on this side of the pond.

How good is he?

Yamaguchi, 32, spent the first six full seasons of his career as reliever (he often closed) before transitioning into the rotation in 2014. The stats are obviously very good, though the scouting reports indicate he does not project to be an impact starting pitcher in the big leagues. From veteran Japanese baseball reporter Jim Allen:

With the Giants, Yamaguchi's splitter has come into its own, and this season he not only executed it well but also incorporated it into his entire mix better so that batters were going after it out of the zone more than ever and coming up empty more. 

...

Although his fastball is not an out pitch for him, Yamaguchi's success with his splitter this season and to a lesser extent his slider is probably related to an uptick in four-seam fastball velocity. 

The improved splitter explains the strikeout rate increase this year. Yamaguchi's fastball averaged 90.2 mph in 2019, up from 89.6 mph in 2018, so he's not a hard-thrower. "MLB scouts I've spoken to see him as either a back-of-the-rotation starter or a bullpen guy, largely because he has not established his current level of success," Allen writes.

Yankees righty Masahiro Tanaka relies on his slider and splitter with his fastball used as a show-me pitch, similar to Yamaguchi, but Tanaka is two years younger and can still touch 94-95 mph when he reaches back. The best MLB comp for Yamaguchi might be Mike Fiers, a right-hander who lulls hitters to sleep with offspeed pitches and a 90-ish mph heater.

What's up with those 21 innings in 2017?

Yamaguchi was involved in an off-the-field incident in 2017 that resulted in him being suspended for much of the season. He cut his pitching hand while out drinking on his 30th birthday, then was involved in an altercation at a local hospital. Yamaguchi pushed a security guard into a desk and damaged a door.

"I did it. I was drunk at the time," Yamaguchi said during a press conference. "... I am truly sorry for having caused such a situation through my bad behavior."

Despite the incident, Allen writes Yamaguchi is "pleasant and straightforward with the media, and I have no reason to doubt he is anything but a good teammate." He has not been involved in any other off-the-field incidents either before or after the 2017 incident.

What about the posting system?

Yamaguchi started his career with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars before signing a three-year contract with the Giants three years ago. NPB rules do not allow players to change teams for four years after signing a free-agent contract, however, so Yomiuri still controls Yamaguchi's rights even though his contract is up. That's why he has to be posted.

Once a team posts a player, he has 30 days to negotiate a contract of any size with MLB teams. The player returns to his team in Japan if he's unable to agree to terms within the 30 days. The MLB team that signs the player pays his former club in Japan a "release fee" that is based on a percentage of his total contract guarantee:

  • Contract worth $25 million or less: 20 percent of total guarantee.
  • Contract worth $25 million and $50 million: $5 million plus 17.5 percent of amount over $25 million.
  • Contract worth $50 million: $9.375 million plus 15 percent of amount over $50 million.

The posting window opened Nov. 1 and will close Dec. 5. Players can be posted anytime between those dates with the full 30-day negotiating window to follow. That ensures the process will not drag out into mid-to-late January (like Tanaka in 2014) and hold up the rest of free agency.

The posting process was changed two years ago and Mariners lefty Yusei Kikuchi is the only player to jump to MLB under the current rules thus far. He signed a complicated four-year, $56 million contract with one player option year and multiple club option years. The Mariners paid his former team, the Seibu Lions, a release fee north of $10 million.

Which teams could be interested?

Yamaguchi's posting was just announced Monday, so there have been no rumors connecting him to MLB teams yet. Those will come in time. MLB teams of course scout Japan, some more than others, so Yamaguchi is a known quantity. Teams have a book on him already.

It stands to reason that, at age 32, Yamaguchi would prefer to join a contender rather than sit through a rebuild. It could be that a rebuilding team is most willing to let him start, however. These teams strike me as possible fits for Yamaguchi. To be clear, this is my own speculation:

  • Angels: There is a definite need for another starter, plus they're on the West Coast.
  • Athletics: The A's have rolled the dice on international players in the past (Yoenis Cespedes, most notably).
  • Diamondbacks: They're said to be in the market for Akiyama. Why not Yamaguchi too?
  • Giants: Great park, West Coast city, historic franchise. Trading one Giants for another could be appealing.
  • Mariners: Have a long and rich history with Japanese players, and there's a need in the rotation.
  • White Sox: They need another starter and are a team on a rise. Contention may not be far away.

Yamaguchi figures to seek out a starting job, and teams will have the fallback option of using him as a reliever. He did it in earlier in his career and it would be a familiar role for him. The splitter could be the x-factor. The pitch reportedly improved this year, leading to the increase in strikeouts. A team that buys the splitter and sees Yamaguchi as a no-doubt starter could step forward with a large contract offer.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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