ST. PETERSBURG — In the quest to improve their offense, the Rays have embarked on something of a power trip.
The latest move, possibly risky but potentially quite rewarding, is bringing in free-agent Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo on a two-year, $12 million contract, the Tampa Bay Times has learned.
The deal, which also requires the Rays to pay a $2.4 million posting fee, is subject to a physical exam and won’t be finalized and announced until next week.
Tsutsugo looks to be an intriguing addition, a lefty hitter known for his power and patience at the plate who can play several positions (leftfield, first and third) though none extraordinarily well.
Tsutsugo just turned 28, but has played in 10 seasons for the Yokohama DeNa BayStars.
He has averaged 33 homers and 93 RBIs over the past five seasons, his best overall performance coming in 2016, when he hit .322 with 44 homers, 110 RBIs and a 1.100 OPS in 133 games. Also of note is his career .382 on-base percentage.
The Rays scouted and analyzed Tsutsugo’s play in Japan enough to feel confident, citing hard-hit rates and exit velocity, his power is legit. General manager Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash got a first-hand look this week, slipping away from the winter meetings hotel in San Diego to watch Tsutsugo in a private workout at a nearby facility.
Of several comparisons to current big-leaguers we heard from talent evaluators, one of the most interesting was to Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs. Justin Smoak and Eric Thames are others . A statistical analysis by The Athletic came up with the Giants’ Brandon Belt and, curiously, the Ji-Man Choi, though the Rays expect more home runs.
Landing Tsutsugo was a big deal for the Rays, as they had to overcome the challenges of bids from several competing teams (including the Dodgers) as well as geography, as previous Japanese players have preferred to play on the west coast or in New York.
For what it’s worth, Tsutsugo and his reps were said to like the fit so much that they passed on some higher offers. Also, the short two-year term could work to Tsutsugo’s advantage as he can be a free agent again at age 30, so he could turn two good seasons into a bigger payday.
There are some risks for the Rays associated with the move. On the field, there are almost always questions about how players from Japan will adjust to the overall level of competition and style of play in the majors, and specifically to the quality of pitching. (Plus, he is coming off a a season with his lowest batting average and OPS, and highest strikeout total, as an everyday player.)
And off the field, there will be a transition to the American culture and major-league lifestyle.
There isn't that long of a list of Japanese position players who came to the majors and were impact players, though outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui (who starred for the Yankees but finished his career with the Rays) did pretty well. The Rays also got 2 1/2 solid seasons from infielder Akinori Iwamura.
The Rays will wait to see how Tsutsugo looks in spring training, and how many other moves they make by then, to decide where he is going to be used primarily. The initial plan will be to look at him primarily at third base and in leftfield, and a little bit at first, though they were quite pleased with the 2019 play of Choi. He could end up primarily as the designated hitter.
With three of their most productive right-handed hitters gone, Travis d'Arnaud in Atlanta, Tommy Pham swapped for the less proven Hunter Renfroe and Avisail Garcia a free agent (though still a possibility to return) adding Tsutsugo makes the Rays even more lefthanded, an imbalance they likely will address, at least by adding another righthander.
The Rays, who missed out earlier this offseason on Howie Kendrick, will pay Tsutsugo $5 million in 2020 and $7 million in 2021. Under the latest posting system, they also have to pay a 20 percent fee ($2.4 million) to Yokohama. The deal has to done by a Thursday deadline.