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Rays Free Agent Targets: Shogo Akiyama and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

Rays emerge as front runners for Japan’s top free agents at the Winter Meetings

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Japan v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

Last November, when I wrote about the top Japanese free agents who could interest the Rays, it was early in the offseason, and I didn’t know how interested the Rays would be about them.

Since then, the Rays lost three outfielders — Avisail Garcia (free agent), Guillermo Heredia (designated for assignment), and Tommy Pham (trade) — while acquiring only two possibly part-time players in Hunter Renfroe and Brian O’Grady.

As a result, the Rays appear to be continuing their search for outfielders, including a backup defender in Center Field and a hitter who can possibly replace what Tommy Pham did.

Perhaps that’s why Rays have show consistent interest in two of the Japanese players I introduced!

The Rays should have a pretty good idea of what these players have to offer, as Neil Solondz revealed on his podcast this week that the Rays have not only been employing scouts in Japan, but sending Special Assistant to the General Manager Bobby Heck as well, one of the top minds in the Rays front office.

CF Shogo Akiyama (31-years old, L/L, 187lbs, 6’ 0”)

2017 World Baseball Classic Pool E: Game 2 - Japan v. Netherlands

In my previous write up, I called Akiyama a, “FV: 45~50 — Floor is good 4th OF,” and saw him as a 26th-man with potential to be a regular if his skill translate. I expected his salary to go up slightly depending on competition, but thought it should around $4 million per year.

According to news reports, the Rays, Cubs, Reds and Diamondbacks are showing interest in Akiyama, and the salary is expected to be 8~10 million$ for two years.

I thought the Rays might give up if he wants more than 4 million a year, but things are different now. With lots of moves, Rays made a financial flexibility on the other hand they are in the position of need a backup CF and contingency plan for uncertain Renfroe. Therefore, I think they can invest some money for him who can be a complement Meadows, KK and Renfroe.

At that time, I referred to Jon Jay (2013-2017), as Akiyama’s Comparison, as I expected a player with:

  • Good contact (AVG around .280) with on-base skills
  • 7 HR at 600 PA (he was 20+ HR hitter in Japan, but for comparison Aki Iwamura was a 30~40 HR hitter)
  • Average CF defense, good COF defense
  • 500 PA yielding a 1.5~2.0 fWAR player

Some people use Adam Eaton or Norichika Aoki as a player comparison for Akiyama.

Eaton has more power and speed, and his defensive range would be the maximum expectation of Akiyama. This seems like a fair comparison if you see Akiyama as FV 50. That comparison was made by both Eno Sarris at The Athletic ($) and Jon Paul Morosi at mlb.com. Sarris also referenced the 2019 versions of Alex Gordon and Nick Markakis in his analysis of Akiyama’s offense.

As for the other comparison some have made, Aoki is also a Japanese left-handed outfielder, but Akiyama is a bit different type of player from Aoki, who was an extreme contact hitter and was COF rather than CF. This comparison is not reasonable.

Is it a good choice for Rays to invest in Akiyama?

The market for defenders of Akiyama’s caliber is not very deep.

Another option for that money is likely Avisail Garcia, and as a RHB I think Garica would be a more balanced choice, but considering needs of backup CF for injury-prone KK and the lower salary, it might be a good idea to choose Akiyama. The Rays only used Garcia in center field 11 times last season, and before that he had not played center since 2013.

Furthermore, the Rays have no leadoff-type players like Akiyama offers if he’s able to break into a starting lineup (although the Rays is not a team that use a traditional leadoff, so perhaps that point is moot).

LF/3B Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (28-years old, L/R, 209 lbs, 6’ 0”)

2017 World Baseball Classic Pool B: Game 1 - Team Cuba v. Team Japan
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

I thought Rays would be more interested in Akiyama than Tsutsugo in November; however, according to news reports from Japan, the Rays turned out to be one of the three teams who held workout with him during the Winter Meetings.

The rest of the competition varies depending on the news: the Dodgers, Texas, the White Sox and Toronto have been rumored, with only the Rays consistent. Among them, Texas seems to have given up on him, and Toronto’s interest seems to have diminished, leaving the main competition with Los Angeles and Chicago.

Furthermore, Japanese media said Rays are the most active team in pursuing Tsutsugo, and are expected to offer a two- to three-year deal. One media source said that Rays also provided a clear vision of how to use him:

なかでも熱心にアタックしているのが、レイズ。ポスティングシステムの利用が申請された当初から筒香の能力を最も評価し、2-3年の複数年契約を用意しているもよう。明確な起用方法のビジョンも示している。

This is an important revelation, as Tsutsugo’s agent had said during the Winter Meetings that the player would prioritize playing time over financial incentives.

Tsutsugo began career as a third baseman, but moved to first base and left field for various reasons (injury, lack of tools, and weight gain). Left field has been considered his primary position, and his defense there has been graded as poor.

The Rays are a team that emphasizes defense and position flexibility, and with a roster projected to include Ji-Man Choi, Nate Lowe and other players who will need DH time like Yandy Diaz and Austin Meadows, I think there is no room for player who is limited defensively.

Tsutsugo’s defensive surprise

But there has been a development! Major League teams (including Rays) recently tested Tsutsugo’s third base defense in the aforementioned workout, and the player has been working on his infield defense with Nolan Arenado this offseason. This may have led the Rays to think he can be a serviceable third baseman.

The difference between poor defensive LF/1B/DH to a serviceable third baseman is huge, and completely changes the approach to evaluating this player. It’s hard to know how the Rays are grading his defense — this is why I gave him a wide range of FV 40~50 in my initial write up, and referred to Justin Smoak as his player comparison.

If Tsutsugo can be a third base version of Smoak instead of a left field version, he could be a good addition for Rays. At ESPN, Jeff Passan compared Tsutsugo to Kyle Schwarber, while Eno Sarris found offensive comparisons to 2019 performances from J.D. Davis, Ji-Man Choi, and (if his power does not translate) Brandon Belt.

The credibility of the Japanese newspaper has yet to be verified, and the possibility of third base is still only a guess, but the Rays’ interest seems to be real. And we know the Rays are a team that tested the possibility of third-base defense for first baseman Lowe, who didn’t play at third base as a professional before this year, so their creative thinking may mean they see potential where others do not.

In his favor, Tsutsugo has played at the artificial turf in Japan and says he is willing to take a lower salary in hopes of becoming a Major Leaguer. I believe there is a chance that Rays will invest if he has any confidence in his third base defense.

Since the deadline for his contract is Dec. 16, we’ll soon know if Rays have given him a competitive offer.

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Daniel Russell assisted with this article.