Slugger Yoshimoto Tsutsugo represents the fifth Japanese player to be signed by the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, although only three of the four signed previously have ever played a major league game for the team.
In his honor, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and look at the other players from Japan to have donned a Tampa Bay uniform.
Hideo Nomo (2005)
When Hideo Nomo came to America in 1995, he became an instant sensation as his unique delivery and devastating repertoire made him nearly unhittable. Nomo would lead the National League in strikeouts (236), and would also be named an All-Star. Nomo took home the Rookie of the Year award as well, and would finish 4th in the Cy Young voting.
Fast-forward a decade, and Nomo had fallen on hard times in what was mostly a successful Major League career that even included a couple a no-hitters. However, in 2005, after several years of wear and tear, he was relegated to a minor league signing with the basement-dwelling Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Nomo made the Devil Rays Opening Day roster and had a stellar debut for Tampa Bay as he yielded just one hit, a solo home run, over six innings pitched. Nomo would continue to show flashes of his former brilliance, but they were few and far between. After 19 starts, the Devil Rays designated Nomo for assignment in July.
Overall with the Devil Rays, Nomo compiled a record of 5-8 with a 7.24 ERA and a 5.49 FIP over the course of 100 2⁄3 innings pitched (19 games).
Nomo’s time on the mound came to an end in 2008. In 2014, he was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of fame. After staying away from the game for almost a decade, Nomo joined the front office of the San Diego Padres in 2016 as an adviser, a positioncurrently holds.
Shinji Mori (2006-2007)
Heading into the 2006 season, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made their first foray into the Japanese Posting system, winning the bid to negotiate with right-handed pitcher, Shinji Mori, whom the Seibu Lions had posted that offseason.
The Devil Rays were able to sign Mori to a two year deal and he instantly became the favorite to take over the Devil Rays closer role. Unfortunately, Mori suffered a torn labrum during spring training. The injury would cost Mori his entire 2006 season; when it came time for him to return in 2007, his injury woes continued and he was deemed not ready to be activated. He would be released, re-signed to a minor league deal, but would ultimately never throw a pitch in any regular season game in the United States.
Mori returned to Japan in 2009 and took a role as a pitcher-manager with myriad teams over the next few years. Tragically in 2017, while serving as the pitching coach of the Lions, Mori passed away at the age of 42 due to multiple organ failure.
Akinori Iwamura (2007-2009)
The Devil Rays had much more success during their second trip through he posting system when they won the rights to negotiate with infielder Akinori Iwamura, a multiple time Gold Glove winning third baseman with the Yakult Swallows. Tampa Bay eventually signed Iwamura to a three year deal, with an option for a fourth season.
Iwamura became the Rays starting third baseman and dazzled with incredibly acrobatic plays and served as a catalyst at the top of the lineup. Iwamura enjoyed a fantastic debut season as he accrued 3.1 fWAR and although is power numbers weren’t as gaudy as they had been in Japan, he still put up 107 wRC+.
In 2008, Iwamura moved from third to second to make way for top prospect Evan Longoria. He made this transition without complaint and without any decline in his defense; he continued to serve as a spark plug atop the Rays lineup as Tampa Bay marched towards their first postseason berth. Iwamura batted leadoff for the Rays in their first ever playoff game on October 3rd, 2008 and then a couple of weeks later, it was Akinori Iwamura who would record the final putout of the American League Championship Series. He fielded a groundball and stepped on second for a forceout to send the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series.
That would be the high point of Iwamura’s Major League career. After an torrid start to the 2009 season, Chris Coghlan’s take-out slide at second (a slide that would surely be illegal today) busted Aki’s knee and derailed his season. He returned from the devastating injury later on that season, but he was never quite the same. He was be traded to Pittsburgh in the offseason, but struggled and would be back in Japan following the 2010 campaign.
Iwamura would split time as a player and a coach during his return to Japan and after several more seasons, he retired permanently as a player in 2017. Iwamura was most recently spotted doing TV commentary in Japan during the Rays playoff run this past October.
Hideki Matsui (2012)
The New York Yankees signed Hideki Matsui prior to the 2003 season with tremendous fanfare; Matsui had become a legend in Japan after putting up three MVP seasons and clubbing a total of 332 homeruns over his 10 years in the Japanese Central League.
Matsui was solid during his seven years in pinstripes, despite being a defensive albatross —he registered a 124 wRC+ and averaged 20 homeruns a season. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2003 and even garnered some MVP attention during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
Matsui moved on to the west coast for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, but had entered the downturn of his career. In 2012, the Rays signed Matsui to a minor league deal. After a month in their system, Matsui made his debut on May 29th, 2012 and in his second plate appearance, Matsui crushed a two run homerun.
After hitting another homerun two games later, Matsui’s bat went dead. He recorded just 12 hits — only one for extra bases — in 94 trips to the plate. This eventually led the Rays to release the veteran slugger on August 1st. Matsui would retire at the end of the season and officially announce his retirement after signing a one day contract as an honorary member of the Yankees in 2013.
After retiring, Matsui became the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and has since taken a job in the front office of the New York Yankees as a special adviser.