ST. PETERSBURG — In retrospect, the Rays would have been better off with Asdrubal Cabrera.
He was available as a free agent that December day in 2019 when Tampa Bay signed Yoshi Tsutsugo to a two-year deal. Cabrera was a lot cheaper, turned out to be more productive and is a switch-hitter, too.
For that matter, the Rays could have signed Corey Dickerson or Kole Calhoun. They both cost roughly the same as Tsutsugo, and Dickerson’s batting average is almost 100 points higher while Calhoun has hit twice as many homers the past two seasons.
Yes, the Rays have come to regret the $14.4 million they invested in Tsutsugo’s salary and posting fee.
But that doesn’t mean they screwed up.
As horrible as the results look today — and it doesn’t get much worse than designating a guy for assignment 77 games into his big league career — the thought process was defensible.
The key is looking at the deal through the lens of Tampa Bay’s finances. With payrolls that are a fraction of the size of their division rivals, the Rays need to take risks to keep up competitively. Mind you, not $100 million risks because that could potentially cripple flexibility for several seasons if a deal turns sour.
Instead, the Rays need to make targeted gambles. And that’s usually not going to include signing a Dickerson or a Calhoun. While they are serviceable veterans who might make the Rays marginally better, it wouldn’t move the needle very far in relation to their salaries.
But signing a home run hitter from Japan? That had game-changing potential.
The problem is that history was not on Tampa Bay’s side. While Japanese pitchers have had success in the majors and Ichiro Suzuki is a future Hall of Famer, the list of middle-of-the-order hitters pretty much begins and ends with Hideki Matsui.
And the Rays knew that. So did every other team. It’s one of the reasons Tsutsugo’s salary was practically in the range of a middle reliever or fourth outfielder. If he had produced a .360 on-base percentage with 25-homer power, the Tsutsugo deal would have been an absolute steal. But he didn’t really come close.
So what went wrong?
The cultural transition during a pandemic certainly didn’t help, but it’s too easy to blame it all on that. Basically, Tsutsugo had trouble handling the velocity of big-league pitchers in 2020, and his confidence took a beating.
He was much slimmer when he arrived in spring training this season and the Rays were optimistic when the season began, but it all seemed to go downhill following a four-strikeout night at Yankee Stadium on April 10. Tsutsugo began tinkering with his approach and started chasing pitches outside of the zone. He went from a patient hitter with occasional power to an impatient hitter with occasional singles.
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“Coming into this year we were optimistic about Yoshi and felt that last year the bottom-line results were not what he wanted, what we wanted,” general manager Erik Neander said. “But the pitches he was swinging at, the quality of the contact, the frequency of contact, (we) believed there was some tough luck in there over a 60-game run last year that could sort itself out this year. And we were optimistic it would.
“But I think things snowballed a little bit over the last several weeks here and (he was) just unable to get out of the tailspin.”
With Ji-Man Choi potentially coming off the injured list this week, the Rays saw no path forward for Tsutsugo on the major-league roster. The question now is whether Tsutsugo is willing to fight for his big-league career at age 29.
There hasn’t been any indication that other teams are willing to trade for Tsutsugo, so the Rays likely will outright him to Triple-A Durham where he could get ample playing time with less pressure and scrutiny. It’s up to Tsutsugo, however, to either accept the assignment or choose to become a free agent. If he becomes a free agent, he could sign with another team in America or return to Japan and resume his career there.
For the Rays, there is no sense in pretending this wasn’t a swing-and-miss. Tsutsugo will go down as one of the worst free-agent signings in franchise history.
But the silver lining is they can walk away with minimal damage. That same offseason, the Reds signed Mike Moustakas and are now on the hook for $64 million for a player who was hitting .226 in his first 67 games with the club.
The Rays may have wasted a prorated portion of $14.4 million on Tsutsugo, but they won’t be paying for that mistake beyond this year.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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