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The Mariners are right to consider Masataka Yoshida

They might have Masataka Yoshida at home! But can you really be sure?

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United States v Japan - Baseball Gold Medal Game - Olympics: Day 15 Photo by Yuichi Masuda/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Mariners were linked to Orix Buffaloes star outfielder Masataka Yoshida by MLB Network reporter Jon Morosi.

The 29-year-old star from Nippon Professional Baseball is likely the top international professional free agent bat on the market this winter, with a staggering track record of hitting in the world’s second-strongest professional league. Though injuries held him back in the 2016-17 seasons, Yoshida has been one of the most consistent hitters in Japan since entering the league, with an OPS over .950 in each of the past five seasons. It is up to the Buffaloes as to whether they post Yoshida or not, as they control his contract for one more season, however given Yoshida has telegraphed his desire to come stateside, Orix could recoup some millions of dollars in a posting fee this year, as opposed to receiving nothing should they hold him for another season. The deadline to decide on if they post him is December 5th, and should he be given leave to pursue MLB, he should be on the Mariners’ radar.

Yoshida’s leading skills are a sensational combination of bat/barrel control and pitch selection. Since 2018, Yoshida has 368 walks in 2,675 plate appearances, good for a 13.8% walk rate that is extremely impressive. What’s more striking is that in that same time period he’s struck out just 235 times, for a microscopic 8.8% strikeout rate. The only qualified MLB hitter who whiffed that rarely this year was Luis Arraez, and unsurprisingly like Arraez, Yoshida has a batting title to his name, taking home the Pacific League title in both 2020 and 2021 before seeing his .335 line bested by Go Matsumoto in 2022.

Setting Yoshida apart, however, is his balanced offensive skillset, as the 29-year-old native of Fukui, Japan led the Pacific League by a dramatic margin in OBP (.449) and OPS (1.008), numbers only surpassed by Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows’ superstar, Munetaka Murakami. The lefty-hitting Yoshida has performed on the international stage as well. Listed at just 5’8, 176, Yoshida absolutely has surprising power for his size. His swing stands out for exceptional ability to adjust to a pitch where it is hit, though I am slightly wary his pull-side power could be curtailed somewhat by stronger velocity.

If Seattle believes Yoshida’s game will translate, and I think they are right to think it would, what might they expect to get? A leadoff hitter seems like the easiest, perhaps most hopeful outcome.

The joy of the emergence of Julio Rodríguez, American League Rookie of the Year, is nearly endless in its facets. One of his more obvious boons to the Seattle Mariners in 2022 was his obvious brilliance as the club’s hitter who was guaranteed the most opportunities per game for most of the season. In 254 plate appearances as the M’s leadoff hitter, Julio’s 169 wRC+ was the best of any leadoff hitter (min. 250 PAs) in all of MLB, just ahead of Jose Altuve. Too often, however, the M’s offense fell short of its “ominous” preseason hopes laid out by Jerry Dipoto, ranking a below-average 18th in runs per game despite a 107 wRC+ that ranked 8th in MLB and a 14th-ranked team wOBA. Affording Julio a high-OBP leadoff man ahead of him that allows the M’s to slot their superstar in at the No. 2 hole seems ideal, and somewhat akin to what the M’s hoped they might get from Jesse Winker and/or Adam Frazier.

In all honesty, I see a bit of Frazier in Yoshida’s swing, yet the pint-sized Japanese star creates far greater torque than Frazer, generating superior bat speed and sharper contact. Unfortunately, “better hitting Adam Frazier” is only acceptable if you are playing up the middle on the infield dirt, and Yoshida is pretty securely slotted into left field defensively. I will confess to you, beloved reader (yes you), that I’ve only seen a few full games of Yoshida, and in none of them did he make any glaring errors, an assessment ostensibly backed up by his perfect fielding percentage this season. That said, his foot speed is below-average as is his range, and his arm is likewise.

In essence, then, Yoshida has a very similar likely profile to another player the Mariners currently have in their employ: Jesse Winker. If Yoshida can maintain his quality OBP and some semblance of his slugging - say 15-18 home run power - while running a high batting average by spraying singles and doubles as he’s done in Japan for over half a decade, he could easily outperform Winker or any of Seattle’s other current outfielders. However, it’s a longshot to expect him to match the best version of Winker, who has a track record as one of the league’s best hitters and remains young enough to justify a bounce-back if the team trusts him and his health. Given that Seattle reportedly wants to add “one to two outfielders,” however, that does not appear to be a given, and Yoshida’s upper echelon of potential at the plate is in line with Winker and other bats on the market they’ve been linked to like Brandon Nimmo, albeit with similar defensive shortcomings to Winker.

A final point in favor of Yoshida is his lack of draft pick compensation attached. As an international free agent, he costs Seattle nothing but sweet sweet cash. If we want to project even more aggressively into our considerations, Yoshida also offers the Mariners another potential crack at the reward of draft pick compensation as they will receive for having had Rodríguez on their Opening Day roster and seeing him win the Rookie of the Year award. This is contingent on several factors, of course, including where the other big international free agent, RHP Kodai Senga, signs, as well as if Yoshida earns “top prospect” status from MLB’s somewhat opaque calculation of various top prospect rankings, as well as obviously the performance of Yoshida relative to players like INF Gunnar Henderson and RHP Grayson Rodriguez in Baltimore, as well as C Gabriel Moreno in Toronto just to name a few. If the M’s are comfortable adding Yoshida while staying in the market for other top-tier upgrades on the infield dirt, I think he’s more than worth their consideration.