The Yankees expect to be active this offseason and could look towards the international free agent market. What’s more, general manager Brian Cashman could be looking beyond Japanese righty Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
Granted, we’ve discussed Yamamoto at length and how great he’d be for the Yankees. A 1.72 career ERA in seven years in Japan makes the 25-year-old an exciting prospect. New York needing some quality arms behind Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodon only fuels the Yamamoto-to-Bronx fire.
However, there are other factors to consider. Not only is Yamamoto only one free agent, but he won’t come cheap. The Yankees aren’t the only team interested and he’ll command a long-term deal, perhaps even $200 million at a minimum. The Yankees also need outfield help and could use some options beyond Cody Bellinger.
Enter two more international free agents: Japan’s Shōta Imanaga and South Korea’s Jung-hoo Lee. Each talent could help the Yankees in big ways, though fans should temper expectations, same as with Yamamoto. Baseball is a different game and level of competition in both Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) compared to MLB. No matter what the team, there will be an adjustment period with the usual growing pains, ups and downs, etc.
That won’t stop the Yankees. Sure enough, Sports Illustrated predicts they’ll sign Imanaga. Contrastingly, MLB insider Jon Morosi reports they’re also linked to Lee. There’s no doubt that one or both players would help the Yankees tremendously.
Let’s start with Shōta Imanaga, almost an elder statesman of a free agent at age 30. He throws four pitches and has recently upped his fastball velocity from 90 to about 92 mph, and also throws a curveball, splitter, and a sort of cutting slider. He owns a 2.96 ERA in eight years with the Yokohama BayStars and posted a 2.66 mark last season. Imanaga is also a strikeout artist, averaging 10.6 per nine innings compared to just 1.6 walks per nine (BB/9).
Some Yankees fans could be skittish and get Kei Igawa flashbacks, but this isn’t the same situation. As written in Tom Verducci & Joe Torre’s The Yankee Years, the Yankees were the only team even considering the now-infamous bust. Imanaga is also drawing interest from the Cubs, Dodgers, and Mariners, so the Yankees have some healthy competition.
Jung-hoo Lee is just as intriguing. He’s a .340 career hitter in seven seasons, all with KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes. Lee also has an elite glove in center and recently added some power to his swing. Even better, he’s a bat-to-ball hitter who takes his walks and doesn’t strike out a ton.
That said, we shouldn’t get too excited about Lee’s numbers. This isn’t to say he’ll fail in MLB, but there’s more risk compared to Imanaga. KBO is notoriously hitter-friendly and few position players have made the jump and enjoyed sustained success in MLB. The only current standouts are the Padres’ Ji-Man Choi and Ha-seong Kim, and the retired Shin-soo Choo.
Then, there’s former Twins first baseman Byung-ho Park, who signed a four-year, $12 million deal in 2016. Park had just hit .343 for Kiwoom (then Nexen) while hitting 52 and 53 home runs the previous two seasons. He was 30 years old and rocketing towards more success.
Park hit .191 with 12 homers in just 62 games before asking for his release. He returned to Kiwoom, resumed playing at a high level, and now plays for KT Wiz. Baseball is just a different game overseas.
Even so, Lee’s bat-to-ball skills make him worth the risk. It’s just a matter of how well he adjusts to MLB pitching. Boston’s Masataka Yoshida was a .326 career hitter in Japan and hit .289 with 15 homers as a rookie in 2023. The Yankees would probably be thrilled to get that and a modest 104 wRC+ from Lee.
It’s still early in free agency and, per usual, the Yankees have not tipped their hand. Smart money says Yoshinobu Yamamoto is their top priority, with Shōta Imanaga and Jung-hoo Lee following.
Regardless, any of the three would be a tremendous addition in New York.