Should the Red Sox sign Yoshinobu Yamamoto? Weighing pros, cons of a blockbuster signing

Red Sox

Since turning pro in 2017, Yamamoto is 70-29 with a 1.82 ERA — striking out 922 batters in 897 innings.

Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes pitches against the Lotte Marines in Chiba, east of Tokyo, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. Yamamoto has pitched a no-hit game for his Japanese club.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto has crafted a stellar resume during his seven seasons in Japan. (Kyodo News via AP)

Craig Breslow has his work cut out for him this winter.

The Red Sox — coming off of a third last-place finish in four seasons in 2023 — have several areas of the depth chart that need to be shored up if Boston hopes to shift its perception as regular cellar-dwellers in the AL East.

But if Breslow is looking for a place to start as he tries to accelerate Boston’s ascension as a premier MLB power once again, the choice is obvious.

The 2024 Red Sox need pitching … and lots of it.

And as luck would have it, Boston’s renewed emphasis on contention falls on the same offseason where a generational pitching talent is ready to take on MLB competition.

Shohei Ohtani could command the largest contract doled out in baseball history this offseason, but Japanese phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto might be the most hyped international free agent since Ohtani arrived stateside in 2018. 

Yamamoto was posted by his Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team, the Orix Buffaloes, on Monday — with MLB teams now granted 45 days to try and negotiate a contract with the 25-year-old righty.

Given Boston’s need for proven pitching at the top of its rotation, it should come as little surprise that the Red Sox have already been linked to Yamamoto, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

But should the Red Sox be the team that gets him to sign on the dotted line?

Let’s look at the pros and cons of Boston winning the Yamamoto sweepstakes.

Pro: He addresses an immediate need.

There’s no need to overthink this.

The Red Sox’ 2023 season was torpedoed by their dreadful pitching, especially in a starting rotation that was routinely plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness. Boston ranked 21st in MLB in team ERA at 4.52.

If Boston wants to start stacking wins in 2024, it’s going to need some proven pitching in place to anchor its roster.

Yamamoto offers an instant remedy, at least if his video-game-like numbers in the NPB carry over to MLB.

Few pitchers across any tier of pro baseball have compiled the resume that Yamamoto has forged over his seven seasons with Orix.

In 2023, Yamamoto won his third straight Sawamura Award — the NPB equivalent to the Cy Young Award — after posting a 1.21 ERA, a 0.884 WHIP, and 169 strikeouts over 164 innings of work. He has won two straight Pacific League MVPs, and is one of the favorites to take home a third straight trophy this season.

Since turning pro in Japan in 2017, Yamamoto is 70-29 with a 1.82 ERA — striking out 922 batters in 897 innings.

Of course, the competition found in MLB is more daunting than the opponents that Yamamoto has carved up for years.

But even though it’s not expected for Yamamoto to routinely post sub-2:00 ERAs in North America, his plus stuff on the mound and varied arsenal of pitches paint the picture of a potential ace, even at this level.

The case can be made that Boston needs to sign at least a couple of pitchers this winter in order to remedy the Achilles heel that tanked its latest season.

But if Yamamoto can come anywhere close to replicating his numbers in Japan, Boston’s pitching corps could suddenly become an area of strength in 2024.

Pro: He’s just entering his prime.

Yes, the Red Sox could make the biggest splash this offseason by being the team that hands Ohtani $500 million or more.

And even with righty Aaron Nola avoiding the allure of free agency by choosing to remain with the Phillies on a seven-year, $172 million deal, there are plenty of other pitchers that Boston can target this winter — including reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez, Sonny Gray, and more.

But if Breslow and the Red Sox are looking to build a roster aimed at sustained success, diverting some of their fiscal flexibility to a player like Yamamoto might be the best option.

Even with some of the uncertainty surrounding Yamamoto’s transition to MLB, the righty doesn’t turn 26 years old until next August.

Ohtani, who turns 30 next July, will not even be able to pitch in 2024 due to an elbow procedure. He also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019.

It’s probably unwise to doubt a player with Ohtani’s two-way talent, but there’s been a lot of wear and tear placed on that elbow, especially for a guy who could be landing half a billion dollars in the next few months.

Snell will turn 31 during the first week of December, as will Montgomery just after Christmas. Rodriguez will be turn 31 on April 7, while Gray is 34 years old.

The Red Sox have a promising foundation in place with key cogs like Rafael Devers signed long-term. They have no shortage of young talent both up in the big leagues (Triston Casas, Brayan Bello, Ceddanne Rafaela, Jarren Duran) and knocking on the door down on the farm (Marcelo Mayer, Roman Anthony, Kyle Teel, etc.).

But if the Sox want to contend well beyond any short-term gains in 2024 and 2025, signing a 25-year-old ace like Yamamoto makes more sense than handing a hefty deal to a pitcher on the wrong side of 30.

Con: Can he handle MLB batters?

It’s the question that is posed every single time a promising international player makes the jump over to MLB.

Yamamoto might be a cheat code against NPB batters, but it remains to be seen if he can come close to replicating that success in the top baseball league in the world.

For every Ohtani or Yu Darvish, there are plenty of instances of NPB pitchers who have either struggled to adjust to MLB batters, settled into lesser roles further down in the rotation/bullpen or outright flamed out.

The last time that the Red Sox emerged triumphant in a bidding war for a NPB talent was back in 2006 with Daisuke Matsuzaka — with Boston paying a $51.1 million posting fee to his former team, the Seibu Lions, before handing him a six-year, $52 million contract.

And even though Matsuzaka and the Red Sox won a World Series in 2007, Matsuzaka was not exactly the future ace that Boston envisioned, with his 2.90 ERA in 2008 overlooking the control issues that hindered him from going deep in games.

Add in other NPB pitchers who labored in the big leagues like Kei Igawa and Ideki Irabu, and there is never a guarantee that even the most promising international free agent can make the same impact against the best players in the world.

(Remember Rusney Castillo, Red Sox fans?)

Of course, even if Yamamoto isn’t a top-five pitcher and proven ace, he has the pure stuff and variety and pitches to project a floor as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.

Granted, the Red Sox don’t necessarily want to be shelling out over $200 million for even a very good No. 2 starter.

As electric as Yamamoto’s stuff is, there is always a bit of an gamble when it comes to investing in a player with his build (5-foot-10, 176 pounds) and his lack of experience in MLB.

Con: A hefty price 

The Red Sox are in a prime position to flex some fiscal muscle this offseason.

With Boston just under $50 million below the first CBT threshold of $237 million, Breslow and the Sox’ top brass have the means to join in the bidding war for a player like Yamamoto.

But with the Red Sox in need of several additions this offseason — especially on the pitching staff — Boston may need to weigh just how much they’re willing to spend in order to outbid other rumored suitors with deep pockets like the Yankees, Mets, Cubs, and Dodgers. 

ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel projected that Yamamoto will eventually sign a seven-year, $212 million deal in MLB. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a nine-year, $225 million deal. 

Boston will also need to pay up for what will be a steep posting fee for the Orix Buffaloes. 

As noted by MLB, the posting fee under the MLB-NPB agreement will be 20% of the first $25 million of a major league contract, including earned bonuses and options. The percentage drops to 17.5% of the next $25 million and then to 15% of any amount over $50 million. There is a supplemental fee of 15% of any earned bonuses, salary escalators and exercised options.

Breslow and the Red Sox will likely open the checkbook this winter in order to send a message that the organization’s days of thrifty offseason maneuvers are over.

But Boston also needs to avoid being reckless with its new spending power. And if the Red Sox don’t believe that Yamamoto is worth the $200+ million, they might be better served using that money to sign two more starters instead.