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Japanese stars cream of free-agent crop

Bruce Penton looks at free agents Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto
bruce penton sports

The baseball world knows that the No. 1 free agent during this off-season is the Japanese phenom, Shohei Ohtani, who might be the game’s best hitter and its best pitcher. But according to a recent story featuring the best free agents available, the No. 2 guy is also a Japanese star — 25-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

While Ohtani’s status carries a major asterisk — he recently underwent elbow surgery and will be available only to hit during the 2024 season — there are no such concerns about Yamamoto, who is coming off a spectacular two-year run in Japan’s Pacific League. The right-hander, projected to be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter with whatever team is lucky enough to land him, has won the Pacific League’s MVP award the past two seasons, and also its equivalent of the Cy Young award as best pitcher.

Ohtani slugged an American League-leading 44 home runs in 2023 and posted a 10-5 record as a pitcher with a 3.14 earned-run average and 167 strikeouts in 132 innings. The intriguing aspect to his free agency is the great unknown of his pitching future. If he can be expected to return to form on the mound, and can reliably be counted on for 40-plus home runs, his value is astronomical. If he’s ‘only’ a 40-HR guy, his value is still great, but dramatically diminished. The leading contenders are reportedly Ohtani’s former team, the Angels, along with two other West Coast clubs, the Dodgers and Giants, and the big-money Mets, who have never shied away from paying exorbitant fees to free agents (Brandon Nimmo, $162 million for eight years; Justin Verlander, $86 million for two years; Edwin Diaz, $102 million for five years).

Two other free agents of note: Cy Young-calibre pitchers Aaron Nola and Blake Snell.

In other off-season baseball news, Chicago Cubs signed manager Craig Counsell to the highest managerial contract in history after his contract with the Brewers expired. He is one of the most respected managers in baseball and the Cubs had to dump the popular David Ross to create a managerial void. The last time Chicago lured a big-name manager to the Windy City was in 2015 when Joe Maddon became available. Maddon went on to lead the Cubs to the World Series championship in 2016. Cubs’ fans are hoping Counsell, who was offered $5 million a year by Milwaukee but will earn $40 million for five years with the Cubs, can perform some similar magic.

Meanwhile, Canada’s best player, long-time Cincinnati Reds star Joey Votto, has been released by the Reds and is a free agent. Votto, 40, is almost a surefire Hall of Famer, with 366 career home runs, a .294 batting average and a career OPS (on-base average plus slugging percentage) of .920. That last figure is 52nd all-time. Wouldn’t the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2020, a native of Toronto, look great in a Blue Jays’ uniform for one last sendoff season?

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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