The only knock on Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the most highly regarded pitcher on the free-agent market besides Shohei Ohtani, is that he’s short and light at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.
His reputation, however, is huge and his trophy case crammed with heavy metal after winning his third consecutive MVP award Tuesday on top of his third consecutive Eiji Sawamura Award — the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young — in the Nippon Professional Baseball Pacific League.
And let’s not forget that Ichiro Suzuki, the greatest Japanese import to MLB before Ohtani, is roughly the same size as Yamamoto, although he was a great hitter, not a pitcher (although that changed a week ago; more on that later).
The Dodgers were outbid by the Seattle Mariners for Suzuki in 2000 and reportedly are interested in Yamamoto, who expressed fandom of the boys in blue as a youngster. He’s only 25 years old, meaning that the short free-agent contracts with high average annual value the Dodgers favor over lengthy deals might appeal to Yamamoto. He could accept, say, a four-year deal for at least $30 million a year then become a free agent again before age 30.
The posting fee is also a consideration. A team signing Yamamoto must pay 20% of the first $25 million on his contract, 17.5% of the next $25 million and 15% of anything over $50 million.
Still, bidding for Yamamoto could reach a fever pitch. He has until Jan. 4 to sign with an MLB team after the Orix Buffaloes, his team in Japan, posted him Nov. 20. His agent, Wasserman veteran Joel Wolfe, said his client will hold video-conference calls with teams this week then meet with serious bidders at the winter meetings Dec. 4-7 in Nashville.
“This is by far the player with the most interested teams that I have ever seen at the beginning of free agency,” Wolfe told Japanese reporters.
The Dodgers are the favorites in nearly every media projection to land two-way sensation Ohtani, whose deal likely will be in the 12-year, $450-million range. Would they need an answer from Ohtani before possibly pursuing Yamamoto?
They could spurn both and opt for less expensive starting pitchers, which has been their preferred strategy for years. (Ohtani is recovering from an elbow injury and won’t pitch until 2025 while batting in 2024).
Meanwhile, Yamamoto can bask in his Nippon accomplishments. He is the third player in NPB history to win three consecutive MVPs, joining 1970s standout pitcher Hisashi Yamada and Suzuki, an outfielder who won the award in 1994, ’95 and ‘96, long before he embarked on a 19-year MLB career that undoubtedly will result in a Hall of Fame induction.
Delightful on-field exploits in recent days thrust Suzuki — who retired in 2018 with 3,089 MLB hits and a .311 batting average — back into the news.
While giving a hitting demonstration to players at Asahikawa Higashi High in Hokkaido, Suzuki blasted a 426-foot home run that smashed a window in a math classroom.
Suzuki, who at 50 is twice the age of Yamamoto, improbably took the mound a week ago to pitch against Japanese high school girls in an All-Star game he has sponsored for three years as a way to promote girls baseball.
How’d he do? Suzuki threw a complete-game shutout and struck out nine at the Tokyo Dome. He also had two hits, although Okayama Gakugeikan High’s Ryona Domae struck him out.
“The fact that I got to strike him out is a memory I will cherish forever,” Domae said in a television interview.
Suzuki complimented Domae and said the All-Star game was something he’ll continue supporting, telling Japanese television: “I would like to continue training in hopes to motivate the female athletes.”
Suzuki and many other Japanese players — most notably Ohtani — have blazed a trail to MLB that will be followed by Yamamoto and two others in 2024: left-handed starting pitcher Shota Imanaga, 30, and right-handed reliever Naoyuki Uwasawa, 29.