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Yoshinobu Yamamoto sweepstakes: Ranking seven teams’ chances to sign him

As the bidding heats up for the most sought-after player left on the market, let’s break down where each finalist stands — and where they might pivot if they come up short.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto of Team Japan looks on while pitching during Game 8 of Pool B between Team Japan and Team Australia at Tokyo Dome on Sunday, March 12, 2023 in Bunkyo City, Japan. Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

We’ve officially reached the wine-and-dine portion of the Yoshinobu Yamamoto sweepstakes, with reports that the most sought-after player left on the free-agent market spent part of his weekend dining with owner Steve Cohen and several other key members of the Mets organization — the second meeting between Yamamoto and Mets brass this winter, following Cohen and general manager David Stearns’ visit to Japan with ahead of the Winter Meetings.

All of which would suggest that the Mets are in the catbird’s seat for Yamamoto’s services. But as the race for the most sought-after player remaining on the market officially heats up, it appears to be anyone’s game. The Yankees, too, arranged an additional meeting with Yamamoto on Sunday (although it’s unclear if he visited Hal Steinbrenner’s pad) while just about every other big-market team from sea to shining sea has demonstrated their interest in the 25-year-old ace.

Wherever he lands, Yamamoto figures to be a game-changer. The most dominant pitcher in Japan — he’s won the NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award in each of the last three years — he profiles as an ace for years to come, and he’s just entering his prime at age 25. It would also be devastating for the other finalists who fall short: Granted, there’s still pitching talent available, with Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery leading the way and second-tier options like Marcus Stroman, Lucas Giolito and fellow Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga also looking for new homes, plus trade candidates like Dylan Cease and Corbin Burnes. But whoever misses out once Yamamoto makes his decision will have to pivot quickly to Plan B, an environment that figures to generate plenty of moves and plenty of chaos.

It appears that decision could be coming sooner rather than later, with the latest from ESPN’s Jeff Passan suggesting that the Yamamoto sweepstakes have shifted from the “gathering information” phase to the “bidding war” phase. So let’s handicap where things stand at the moment, ranking the seven most heavily linked clubs by likelihood of landing the righty — and breaking down what each team might do if they’re not lucky enough to obtani Yamamoto’s services.

Who has the best shot at Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

1. New York Yankees

Why they could sign him

In a lot of ways, this feels like the team’s pursuit of Gerrit Cole back in the winter of 2019: Much like Cole, Yamamoto is a player the organization has coveted for years (Brian Cashman witnessed the righty throw a no-hitter in person, and the team has even held the coveted No. 18 jersey open for him as a sign of respect); much like Cole, there appears to be mutual interest, with Yamamoto reportedly interested in playing under the biggest and brightest lights; and much like Cole, Yamamoto hits the market at a time of much consternation among fans — and urgency among Cashman, Steinbrenner and the rest of New York’s braintrust.

As if the Juan Soto trade wasn’t evidence enough, the Yankees are hellbent on bouncing back from their most disappointing season in decades, and Steinbrenner’s wallet plus a star-studded roster and the marketing potential of donning the pinstripes can be a very compelling combination.

What if they don’t?

The Soto trade was unquestionably the right decision, but it — plus shipping three pitchers to Boston for Alex Verdugo — also made the need for more pitching depth even more pressing. Yamamoto is a no-brainer, but if New York can’t close the deal, it’s tough to tell where they might go to bolster their rotation.

The next rung down on the ladder would be Blake Snell, but that feels like an unlikely fit given how much injury risk is already present in the Yankees’ pitching staff. A fly ball-heavy pitcher like Giolito doesn’t figure to mesh well with Yankee Stadium, and Clayton Kershaw is reportedly only considering the Dodgers and hometown Rangers. Marcus Stroman still harbors a deep, deep grudge against the franchise, one he’s not likely to put to bed any time soon. We know Cashman can get aggressive on the trade market, but there’s far less depth to pull from after the Soto and Verudgo deals.

That leaves one name that jumps out: a reunion with Jordan Montgomery, just the high-floor lefty that this rotation needs. Granted, he figures to have plenty of other suitors, and it’s unclear whether he’d consider returning to New York after the team dealt him away at the 2022 trade deadline. Time (and money) heals all wounds, though, and the Yankees will find themselves in a desperate spot if they miss on Yamamoto.

2. New York Mets

Why they could sign him

If ever there was a time for Cohen to flex his considerable financial might, this is it. It’s unclear which direction Stearns might take in his first offseason at the helm in Queens; this team doesn’t seem particularly close to contention after a fourth-place finish in 2023, but is there really the stomach for a rebuild? No matter which path the former Brewers exec chooses, though, starting pitching is the No. 1 short- and long-term need, with Jacob deGrom long gone and the Justin Verlander/Max Scherzer era flaming out. Yamamoto is the perfect arm to pair with Kodai Senga: Ready to excel right away, and young enough at 25 to still be in his prime two, three or four years down the line. Now, it’s just a matter of outbidding — and out-recruiting — their Bronx rivals for the hottest name on the market.

What if they don’t?

Stearns has more or less acknowledged that Yamamoto’s decision will be an inflection point that determines how New York handles the rest of its offseason. He’s the apple (sorry) of their eye, and if they don’t get him, a more patient approach emphasizing short-term fliers — much like the one-year deal they gave to former Yankee Luis Severino — feels more likely than breaking the bank on older options like Snell, Montgomery or Stroman. James Paxton, Frankie Montas and Hyun-Jin Ryu fit that bill to a tee, buy-low candidates who still have some upside and could either raise the ceiling of New York’s rotation or fetch a nice return at the trade deadline. Stearns seems to realize that this group is more than a quick fix away, so anyone hoping to earn a multiyear deal will need to still be in their prime when it comes time to really contend in 2025 and beyond. (This would also seem to rule out a trade for Burnes or Shane Bieber, given New York’s continued efforts to revamp a farm system that just got a much-needed shot in the arm this past August.)

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

Why they could sign him

I mean, wouldn’t you want to join the most consistently competitive team of the past decade, in the second-biggest media market in the country (with convenient access to your home country), that just signed the biggest free agent in the history of the sport? Ohtani was part of an impressive Dodgers contingent that recently met with Yamamoto, who knows what it’s like to be Ohtani’s teammate after winning the 2023 World Baseball Classic alongside him back in March.

L.A. likely doesn’t have quite as much (non-deferred) money to spend, and it remains to be seen how Yamamoto will feel about sharing the spotlight with a star who will always burn brighter than he does. If it’s strictly a matter of winning trophies, though, we’ve already seen how the Dodgers fare in that competition.

What if they don’t?

The Dodgers already got to work on rebuilding an injury-ravaged rotation with the acquisition and extension of Tyler Glasnow last week. But as much as that move raised L.A.’s ceiling, giving up Ryan Pepiot as part of the deal doesn’t address the team’s need for depth — the final two rotation spots are currently projected to be occupied by journeyman lefty Ryan Yarbrough and rookie Emmet Sheehan, not the most inspiring pair. (And that’s not even mentioning the durability risks associated with Glasnow and Walker Buehler.)

Put simply: The Dodgers need fresh arms, especially if Yamamoto signs elsewhere. They were connected with Giolito around the trade deadline, and could make a run at the Southern California native in the hopes that they can fix what seemed to break towards the end of his time in Chicago (and that his fly ball tendencies will play better in Dodger Stadium). Montgomery would also make a lot of sense, as would Imanaga or a reunion with Ryu. And, of course, this remains a very deep farm system, one more than capable of landing Cease, Burnes, Bieber or anyone else should Friedman prefer the trade route. Yamamoto or not, expect them to add another starter one way or another.

4. Boston Red Sox

Why they could sign him

You could make a compelling argument that no one needs to land Yamamoto more desperately than the Red Sox, both to add a frontline starter to a rotation that threw the fourth-fewest innings in the Majors last season and to convince fans that owner John Henry and Co. aren’t out to lunch and are, in fact, capable of competing at the adults table. Boston has a compelling young core of position players, both in the Majors and Minors, but basically no guaranteed money committed to a pitcher beyond 2024. They have every reason in the world to throw the bag at Yamamoto, and despite a last-place finish in 2023, these are still the Red Sox; selling him on Boston and on one of the most successful franchises of the 21st century shouldn’t be too tall an order.

What if they don’t?

If Yamamoto passes, the question becomes how aggressively new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow should be in trying to contend next season. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine them pursuing a short-term fix; there’s a reason they reportedly made inquiries to Seattle about the Mariners’ bevy of young, controllable pitchers.

They could pivot to a run at Snell, but again, does a team that is hardly one move away from a World Series going to pour that much money into a guy on the wrong side of 30 with tons of injury- and performance-related question marks? The Sox feel more likely to split the difference, targeting someone like Giolito, Stroman or Imanaga who will stabilize things and make the team more competitive in 2024 without hindering its flexibility in the future. Montgomery is probably the ideal version of this player, a rock-solid fit who won’t blow up the budget — and comes with the added benefit of breaking the Yankees’ hearts. And hey, maybe the Mariners change their mind of someone like Logan Gilbert, or Boston dangles the right combination of young hitters to pry Cease from Chicago, Bieber from Cleveland or Jesus Luzardo from the Marlins.

5. San Francisco Giants

Why they could sign him

Having finally gotten the free-agent monkey off their back in the form of KBO star Jung Hoo Lee, Farhan Zaidi and Co. shouldn’t stop here. With morale low after a second straight anonymous season and plenty of money to burn — San Francisco’s projected payroll, even with Lee, is still almost $80 million below the first luxury tax threshold — now is the time for the Giants to get aggressive. And the rotation is the place to start, given how little they have in the way of certainty behind stalwart Logan Webb. Yamamoto would give the team the shot of star power they so desperately need, and serve as a nice building block going forward for a team that really just has Lee and Webb under contract beyond 2024.

What if they don’t?

Of course, the Giants have plenty of experience in having to pivot after whiffing on a desired free-agent target. Last year’s post-Judge, post-Correa spending spree was largely a disaster, and if they hope to avoid a similar mistake this winter, they need to be ready to hit the ground running should Yamamoto sign elsewhere.

And really, there’s no reason the Giants shouldn’t be an attractive destination for free-agent pitchers, given the cozy run-prevention environment offered by Oracle Park and how much money San Fran has to spend. It’s harder to find an available arm who isn’t a fit for this team, but Zaidi should focus his attention at the top of the market; this franchise, and this fan base, needs star power.

So that end, the Giants would seem to be among the teams that make the most sense for Snell, given their location on the West Coast, their familiarity with him from his time with the Padres and their ability to add his contract to the books without getting hamstrung. Montgomery works here, too — the goal, really, should be meaningful long-term commitments, rather than the churn of one- and two-year deals that eventually sunk their 2023 campaign. San Francisco’s subpar farm system likely isn’t enough to win a bidding war for someone like Cease, but money talks just as loudly.

6. Philadelphia Phillies

Why they could sign him:

After retaining Aaron Nola to open free agency, GM Dave Dombrowski signaled that the Phillies were satisfied with the state of their rotation heading into 2024 and were more likely to target smaller moves focused around the bullpen. What, then, to make of the fact that the Phils just earned a meeting with Yamamoto last week — one at which Bryce Harper made an appearance over FaceTime?

If there’s one thing we know about Dombrowski, it’s that he believes in the power of stars, and he’s never seen a big name he didn’t want to make a run at. Plus, it’s easy to make an argument for Yamamoto: Unlike Snell, Montgomery or the other available arms, he’s a long-term foundational piece, one who could prop up Nola as he ages into his 30s and even slot into Wheeler’s role with the righty set to hit free agency next winter. This would be less filling an immediate need than making an exception for a exceptional talent just entering his prime.

Granted, the Phillies are still long shots here. Not only are they already a fairly expensive roster, they’re also one of just five teams (along with the Rockies, Marlins, Nationals, and Astros) that have never signed a player directly from NPB.

What if they don’t?

There’s only one Yamamoto, and if the Phillies don’t land him, it seems likely that Dombrowski feels comfortable enough in Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker and Co. to pivot back to fleshing out his bullpen and bench depth. This team isn’t really in search of another back-end veteran; it feels far more likely for them to explore the top end of a relief market that still boasts options like Josh Hader, Jordan Hicks, old friend Hector Neris and Robert Stephenson.

7. Toronto Blue Jays

Why they could sign him

With Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios and Chris Bassitt anchoring things, Toronto’s rotation is hardly in need of a substantial upgrade. But Toronto hasn’t been shy in its desire to land big names in free agency in recent years, and that desire figures to be all the more acute given its very public failure to land Ohtani — a failure that really only Yamamoto is statement enough to wipe away. Given the disappointment emanating from this fan base right now, as well as the steps taken by the division-rival Yankees so far this winter, the Jays could have the incentive to make a run at the righty. They (and their ownership, Canadian media giant Rogers Communications) have the money, and Yamamoto is the kind of pitcher who fits every roster.

That said, Rogers’ willingness to break the bank on Ohtani likely stemmed from his unique marketing potential, and Yamamoto’s bidding seems headed for a number that could push him out of Toronto’s price range. This team very much needs a splash, but someone like Cody Bellinger — a lefty bat at a position of need — seems a better fit than an already-strong starting rotation.

What if they don’t?

As with the Phillies, Yamamoto might be the exception for the Blue Jays as a free-agent target at a position of relative strength. Filling out the lineup is the priority here: Toronto should pivot to Bellinger, as well as a potential reunion with Matt Chapman — or a trade for an infielder like Milwaukee’s Willy Adames or Cincinnati’s Jonathan India.