It’s no secret that the Orioles’ international presence has taken a giant step forward since the Mike Elias regime took charge in late 2018, revitalizing the club’s amateur scouting scene, particularly in Latin America.
Now it may be time for the O’s general manager to set his sights on the Far East.
Two prominent players are looking to make the jump to Major League Baseball from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. Stacey wrote about ace right-hander Kodai Senga, but recently a highly regarded hitter has also joined the conversation: Orix Buffaloes outfielder Masataka Yoshida.
The 29-year-old is coming off a sensational season for the 2022 NPB champs, batting .336/.449/.559 with 21 homers and 89 RBIs in 121 games for Orix. He’s spent all seven of his pro seasons with the Buffaloes, compiling a career batting line of .326/.419/.538. Yoshida, still under contract with Orix, reportedly asked his team to post him after the season ended so that he could pursue an MLB career, and the club is expected to grant his request.
The posting system between MLB and NPB has taken on different forms over the last decade, but one common thread is that the Orioles have never been involved. While they have signed three players from NPB in their history — right-hander Koji Uehara prior to the 2009 season, and lefties Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada prior to 2012 — all three were unrestricted free agents not under contract with an NPB club and thus not subject to the posting system.
The Buffaloes have until Dec. 5 to officially post Yoshida, at which point he will be free to negotiate with as many major league teams as he wants, just like any MLB free agent. Unlike MLB free agents, though, Yoshida will be on a strict deadline; he must reach an agreement with a team within 30 days of his posting date or else return to Orix for the 2023 season. Whichever MLB team signs him will pay a posting fee to the Buffaloes afterward, which will vary depending on how large a contract he signs, but will be roughly 20 percent of Yoshida’s total guaranteed salary.
So if the Orioles are interested in Yoshida, they’ll need to act quickly, and they’ll need to be prepared to dish out a posting fee in addition to his contract. They rarely do the former and have never done the latter. But if the reports from NPB players and scouts are any indication, Yoshida could be worth the O’s changing their behavior.
No less an authority than Adam Jones, the longtime Orioles star who was Yoshida’s teammate with Orix from 2020-21, has called him “the Japanese Juan Soto,” praising the Fukui native’s plate discipline and ability to hit to all fields. Others have likened him to two-time MVP Bryce Harper, Yoshida’s idol, with whom he shares the jersey number 34 and a smooth left-handed cut at the plate. Stefen Romero, who has played 12 seasons of pro ball in the United States and Japan, said Yoshida has “probably by far the the prettiest swing I’ve ever seen.”
There’s a lot to like about the bat. Listed at just 5-foot-8, Yoshida isn’t a hulking slugger, but he’s got plenty of pop, hitting 21 homers in each of his last two NPB seasons and a career-high 29 in 2019. Just watch him crush a southpaw for an upper-deck home run to straightaway center field.
Or perhaps you’ll enjoy this seemingly effortless swing that produced an opposite-field dinger.
Oh yes. An Orioles fan could get used to that. Yoshida could find the short right-field porch at Camden Yards especially inviting.
Yoshida is very much an offense-first player, providing little in the way of speed and defense, as Ted Baarda of Sports Info Solutions explains. Yoshida doesn’t have the arm to play right field or the size to shift to first base, making him a left fielder only, at which he hasn’t been particularly impressive, posting -15 Defensive Runs Saved in the last five years. In addition, last year Yoshida battled a hamstring injury that limited him to just 39 games in the outfield and turned him into a below average runner. Baarda writes that Yoshida fared especially poorly on “deep” fly balls, which doesn’t make him a great fit for the cavernous left-field dimensions at Camden Yards.
Still, that bat! Yoshida’s discerning batting eye and ability to get on base will bolster any lineup, especially Baltimore’s. He has more career walks (427) than strikeouts (307), and in case your eyes didn’t pop out of your head like a cartoon character when I mentioned his OBP earlier, let me repeat: he had a .449 mark this season and .419 for his career. No qualifying Oriole topped a .318 OBP this season. Yoshida would have led the majors in that statistic this year, comfortably ahead of Aaron Judge’s .425.
There is, of course, the massive caveat that a .449 OBP — or any stat compiled in NPB play — doesn’t simply transfer to MLB unchanged. With all due respect to Japan’s top pro league, NPB is not of the same quality as Major League Baseball. Just as not every player who excels in the minor leagues can sustain their success in the bigs, plenty of overseas players of Yoshida’s caliber have tried and failed to make the jump to the States. It’s a significant learning curve, even for a player as polished as Yoshida, and there’s always the question of how he’ll adapt to MLB pitching. I’ll leave that decision to people who are much smarter, and have access to plenty more data and scouting reports about Yoshida, than myself.
At the very least, Yoshida is worth serious consideration for Elias and the gang. If they think he’s capable of playing a passable left field in Baltimore, or that they can give him ample at-bats at designated hitter, he’s a potential game-changer in the O’s lineup. If all goes well, he’d give them a left-handed power and on-base threat who can slide in at the top or the middle of the order.
To quote Adam Jones: “He’s ready for it. I think it’s time for him to take on a new challenge. And Major League Baseball sure as hell is the greatest challenge.”