ST. PETERSBURG — The years scout Bori Uchibori spent watching Yoshitomo Tsutsugo star in Japan, learning everything he could about him as a player and a person, and making sure he was aware of the Rays, certainly helped.
The research, prep and backgrounding done by the office staff was solid. Being the first team to reach out after he was posted was a bonus. The introductory phone call, even with the awkwardness of eight people speaking two different languages, went well.
The money, of course, mattered, with the two-year, $12 million offer enough — even though it wasn’t the high bid among several interested teams — to keep the discussion going. The kind words about them put in by agent Joel Wolfe were beneficial. And the little touches, such as the 20-page information book they put together selling the team and the area, with Tsutsugo on the cover in a Tampa Bay uniform, were appreciated.
But what really led to Tsutsugo joining the Rays, and standing at the Trop on Tuesday pulling on his No. 25 jersey before a crowd of reporters (more from Japanese outlets than local), was the personal touch.
A six-man contingent, led by general manager Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash — and wisely including Shin Fukuda, their Japanese staff athletic trainer/acupuncturist — made a stealth departure from the the winter meetings in San Diego last week for an hour-plus drive to a Los Angeles area facility, owned by Rockies star Nolan Arenado, who has the same Wasserman agent, where Tsutsugo was working out.
“(They) took time out of their day to see me, talk to me, get to know me,’’ Tsutsugo said, via an interpreter. “They showed how much they really wanted me here.’’
Especially, apparently, Cash.
“Kevin's passion for me was one of the biggest parts of me joining the Rays,’’ Tsutsugo said. “If I didn't come to the Rays, Kevin would have haunted me in my nightmares.’’
And now the Rays, similarly impressed with his presence, demeanor, personality and potential for leadership, are dreaming of big things from Tsutsugo (tsoo-TSOO-go) as a fit and a force in the middle of their lineup.
Their bet is that he can carry over what he did for Yokohama, averaging 33 homers and 93 RBIs over the last five seasons while hitting .298, to the majors, even though there aren’t many other sluggers from Japan who have done so.
“There’s not a long list of players that have hit the way he’s hit, too,’’ Neander said. “He’s very accomplished. For us, the quality of pitching in the (Nippon Professional Baseball organization) is very strong, and I don’t believe the transition between leagues is nearly as great as it can sometimes be assumed, and that gives us comfort.’’
Combining what he’s done, and how he’s done it, good hands, a keen eye and a quick bat, the Rays feel pretty good, given what for them is a big investment, salaries of $5 million and $7 million. Plus, they have to pay a $2.4 million posting/release fee.
“That combination is something that has us really optimistic that he’s going to come to this league and find a high level of success,’’ Neander said.
“Without a doubt,’’ Cash said. “We don’t do things like this if we don’t think he has a chance to be really special. And he has been special.’’
Hitting the higher velocity fastballs and a wider assortment of breaking balls from pitchers he has never seen will be something of a challenge, though Tsutsugo said he confident and ready, and eager to embrace the Rays’ use of data to help.
Another issue will be getting him getting comfortable defensively, as the Rays will look at him at third and first base and in leftfield, though may end up using him mostly at designated hitter.
Tsutsugo, 28, also will have to adjust to a new culture of living in the United States, and a different language. Though he spent 10 seasons in one place, playing in Yokohama, Tsutsugo was working on that, spending a month in Los Angeles each of the last six off-seasons, working out and getting assimilated. A 2015 stint in the Dominican winter league also helped, he said. (Plus, the Rays will be hiring an interpreter, personal trainer and a third staff person to work with him.)
Tsutsugo has a wife and 18-month-old daughter in Japan and said they haven’t decided yet if they’ll come over for the season. Other members of his family, which includes a twin sister, will visit.
“I’m going to be able to adjust quickly,’’ Tsutsugo said.
He is planning to get started right away, spending Wednesday looking for an in-season home before heading back to Japan for six weeks, and talking about taking English classes before reporting early to spring training. He did okay Tuesday reading a brief opening statement in English, and throwing in a Spanish phrase, pa la calle vamos (loosely translated as a slang expression for hitting a home run), as he knows more than a few.
There’s a lot Tsutsugo will have to deal with, including the expectations and scrutiny from his homeland. More than a dozen Japanese reporters (mostly based in New York and Los Angeles) attended the press conference, which was carried on live TV in Japan at 2:30 Wednesday morning. Several Japanese media outlets now will over him and the Rays, at least to start the season.
Saying he wants to be called Yoshi, Tsutsugo was savvy enough Tuesday to dodge questions of comparisons to any current big-leaguers. He said he hadn’t talked to any of the Japanese players who’d been with the Rays previously. He wasn’t making any predictions about how he’d do.
In a way, he made it all sound so much simpler than it is.
“I will play as hard as possible to contribute to victories for the Rays.''
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.