Over the last week or so, several players who had been playing pro ball in Korea or Japan (some originally from those countries, others former big leaguers kicking back to the States) have signed contracts with major league clubs. I had notes on several of them in our Top 50 Free Agents post, but wanted to talk about them at greater length now that we know their employers and the details of their contracts.
LF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Tampa Bay Rays
(Two years, $12 million, $2.4 million posting fee)
Tsutsugo’s deal came in a bit beneath what Kiley predicted on the Top 50 Free Agents post (Kiley had two years at $8 million per), where we ranked him No. 42 in the class, but multiple public reports have confirmed that Tsutsugo had more lucrative offers from other teams and chose to sign with Tampa Bay because of comfort with the org.
In addition to regular DH duty, Tsutsugo seems like an obvious platoon partner for Hunter Renfroe in one of the two corner outfield spots. The Rays have indicated he’ll see some time at third and first base, positions he hasn’t played regularly since 2014, and the notes I have from pro/international scouts and executives indicate he’s not athletically capable of playing there, though there’s no harm in seeing whether or not that’s true during spring training. Yandy Díaz isn’t good at the hot corner (he used to be, but he’s just too big and stiff now), but still played third situationally, so perhaps Tsutsugo can be hidden there, even if it’s for a few innings at a time.
Expect Tsutsugo to mash. He’s a .282/.382/.528 career hitter in Japan, he’s averaged 34 homers over the last four years, and he has a 13% career walk rate. He has all-fields power created by a swing I’ve compared to Eddie Rosario’s. Multiple sources have confirmed to me that Tsutsugo averaged an exit velocity of 92 mph (108 mph max) last year in Japan, which would rank among the top 30 big leaguers, but of course the level and type of pitching he’ll see now is going to be different. Kaz Matsui and Kosuke Fukudome each had comparable peak power numbers before they came over but Matsui didn’t have Tsutsugo’s ball/strike recognition, and Fukudome was a little bit older and didn’t have this kind of physicality. Tsutsugo is 28.
LHP Kwang-Hyun Kim, St. Louis Cardinals
(Two years, $8 million, $1.6 million posting fee)
Though much of it dates back to over a decade ago, Kim has quite the winner’s resume. MVP of a high school national championship team, a gold medal at the 2006 World Juniors (he also won MVP of the tournament), gold medals in the 2008 Olympics, 2014 Asian Games, and 2015 Premier12 tournament, plus four KBO titles (‘07, ‘08, ‘10, ‘18) and a KBO MVP (‘08) with SK Wyverns.
Kim has an out-pitch slider and several other average pitches that should enable him to pitch in a multi-inning role or at the back of St. Louis’ rotation. He’s been a much better strike thrower during each of the last two seasons — after he returned from Tommy John surgery — than he was in his 20s. Now 32, the ZiPS projections for Kim are kind of nutty.
Kim, Austin Gomber, and Génesis Cabrera are the only internal lefties who might grab hold of a rotation spot next spring. Gomber is the traditional fifth starter who eats innings. Cabrera (who started all year at Triple-A before being moved around in St. Louis) has the best stuff of the group but he also two option years left and the worst command (and most relief risk) of the three. He’d probably be a four-to-five inning starter, even if he grabbed a job. Kim projects to a role somewhere in between the two. He sits 90-92 (averaging 2400 rpm, which is high for this velo), and will peak in the 94-96 range a few times during outings. His slider tilts in at 83-86, he has a split in the 78-82 range, and a slow, loopy curveball. I like that more in a multi-inning relief role, especially if the fastball plays up in shorter stints.
RHP Shun Yamaguchi, Toronto Blue Jays
(Two years, $6 million, $1.2 million posting fee)
I stuck Yamaguchi, the 32-year-old son of a former sumo wrestler, over on the seasonal Premier12 tab of THE BOARD during the tournament. He was the 2019 NPB WAR leader among pitchers, according to DeltaGraphs, and he’s likely a fifth or sixth starter type in the big leagues. Like Kim, Yamaguchi has a single dominant pitch in his plus splitter, which has trapdoor action as it approaches the plate. The rest — 89-91, a slider with glove-side movement, a shapely, low-70s curveball — is pretty fringy. He’ll have to toss a lot of those curveballs in for strikes to prevent big league hitters from teeing off an early-count fastballs. Here is an extended look at one of Yamaguchi’s 2019 outings.
LHP Joely Rodríguez, Texas Rangers
(Two years, $5.5 million)
Rodríguez had a velo spike in Japan and now sits 94-96 with natural cut (which is where his peak velo was when he was a Pirates prospect), and he’s leaving the Chunichi Dragons having learned a really nasty splitter, one that features just 1100 rpm on average. His slider effectiveness depends on his lower arm slot, and it’s only viable against lefties. He at least looks like a middle reliever now, but there’s a chance the ceiling on the split is a 70 (it’s still pretty new) and he ends up in a higher-leverage role. He struck out 77 hitters in 60 NPB innings, and turned 28 in November.
RHP Josh Lindblom, Milwaukee Brewers
(Three years, $9.1 million)
Another guy with a good split, Linblom also has precise command of a slider/cutter that runs away from righties, and also projects in a swingman role. Lindblom was the highest ranked free agent among the players in this article — he was 36th on our list — and his full scouting report is here. A breakdown of the terms of his deal can be found below:
Financial breakdown of RHP Josh Lindblom's deal with #Brewers: $875,000 signing bonus. $2.75 million salary in 2020, '21, '22. Up to $3 M annually in bonuses: $125,000 each for 90, 100, 110 and 120 IPs; $250,000 each for 130, 140, 150 and 160 IPs; $500,000 for 170, 180 and 190.
— Tom (@Haudricourt) December 18, 2019
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.