Do Rays have reason to believe in Yoshi Tsutsugo?

After a rough first season in the majors, the Japanese slugger is growing increasingly more comfortable.
Rays left fielder Yoshi Tsutsugo leaves the field during training camp Thursday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.
Rays left fielder Yoshi Tsutsugo leaves the field during training camp Thursday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 26, 2021|Updated Feb. 26, 2021

PORT CHARLOTTE — Consider all the things Yoshi Tsutsugo had to deal with in his debut season with the Rays.

The myriad adjustments to culture, language, routine, lifestyle and increased competition that all players from Japan face, along with being one of the few power hitters to attempt the move.

The disruption of spring training being halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, an unexpected return home to train, followed by a trip back for the rushed re-start to the season amid significant health and safety protocols.

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And the frustration that resulted from his poor performance, compounded by decreased playing time, as he tried to prove himself in a new country after a decorated career in Japan while also quelling concerns from his homeland amplified daily by media scrutiny.

“I can’t imagine all he had to go through,” Rays general manger Erik Neander said.

Naturally, the Rays say they expect Tsutsugo (pronounced tsoo-TSOO-go) to be better this season.

Realistically, they have some legitimate reasons to feel that way.

Tsutsugo, 29, is now familiar with his teammates, life in the States, COVID-19 protocols, the level of play and other introductory-level issues.

“I think he’s going to be a lot more comfortable,” manager Kevin Cash said.

Tsutsugo now has not only first-hand knowledge of MLB pitchers, but a better understanding of the challenges they present, his biggest problems caused not just by higher-velocity fastballs, but the movement on them.

He also has a better idea of how to deal with them, making some noticeable adjustments, such as lowering his leg kick and moving his hands closer to his body to get to the ball quicker.

“He’s basically reduced all his movements,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said.

In committing $15 million to land Tsutsugo on a two-year deal (including a posting fee) in December 2019, the Rays were confident he would transition well, having been a five-time All-Star with a Japanese league-leading 139 homers from 2016-19, hitting .285 with a .910 OPS over parts of 10 seasons.

Yoshi Tsutsugo gets ready to bat during spring training Thursday in Port Charlotte.
Yoshi Tsutsugo gets ready to bat during spring training Thursday in Port Charlotte. [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP ]

What they got instead was a .197 average, eight homers, 24 RBIs and a .708 OPS over 51 games (42 starts) and a 2-for-16 postseason in which he was in the lineup only three times in 20 games.

“(The Rays are) still as much a believer now in the talent as when we signed him,” Neander said. “We’re very optimistic that him coming back here, having those experiences underneath him, that we’re going to see a lot more production from him.”

Tsutsugo seems up for the challenge. He said Thursday he knew there was much about 2020 that was out of his control. He said he spent the winter in Japan working on what he could, improving his fitness and preparing to better handle major-league pitching.

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“I have a fresh mind, and I’m ready for the second season of my career here,” he said via new team interpreter Brian Tobin.

Tsutsugo agreed that he will be more comfortable this time around. That seemed evident as he headed off the field Thursday going back-and-forth loudly with some Spanish-speaking teammates. “I’m getting better at Spanish than English,” he said later.

Ultimately, everything will come down to how he plays.

The adjustments Tsutsugo is making to his swing may take some time, and conviction to stick with the plan. How that unfolds may be interesting, given he doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in the lineup, or at least beyond being part of the designated hitter mix.

The lefty swinger plays outfield and third base and will get a spring look at first. But on most days against right-handed starters, the Rays may have better choices, such as Austin Meadows and Randy Arozarena at the outfield corners, Joey Wendle (or Brandon Lowe) at third base and Ji-Man Choi at first.

It doesn’t help that Tsutsugo’s $7 million salary is second-highest on the team (behind Kevin Kiermaier’s $11.5 million) and about 10 percent of the total payroll.

The Rays are banking on Tsutsugo’s talent, buoyed by the additional degree of comfort (he again has two team staffers with him, Seiya Sano, who works as a liaison; and Homare Watanabe, a massage therapist), coming through.

They also hope his immense pride based on his past success and his drive to succeed in the majors — “He holds himself to a really high standard,’' Cash said — offsets the internal and external pressures.

“There were a lot of things I had to adapt (to) last year besides baseball,” Tsutsugo said. “This year, I just really want to focus on (the) baseball that I played in Japan.”