On December 8, 2017 Shohei Ohtani, the biggest name to ever come out of Japan, signed with the Los Angeles Angels. That was six years and 11 days ago. The Phillies were never even in the running. They had limped to the end of the 2017 season with a 66-96 record, good enough for last place in the N.L. East. Their manager was Pete Mackanin and their GM Matt Klentak and to put it plainly, there wasn’t much reason for optimism in the franchise.

Oh how things have changed in six short years. The Phillies are one of the premier teams in baseball, fresh off their second deep postseason run in just as many years, armed with a reinvigorated owner and a management team as aggressive as any in the sport. So when the news came that the Phillies are intending to be “aggressive” in their pursuit of Japanese phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto – hailed by some as perhaps the best pitcher to ever come out of Japan – it wasn’t a shock. A surprise sure, a departure from their long-standing neglect of the Japanese free agent market, but not a shock. The Phillies have become intoxicated with their recent postseason success and who’s to blame them? Winning feels good. It sure as hell beats a decade in baseball purgatory. 

The Phillies’ reported pursuit of Yamamoto is the culmination of a tonal shift in the organization’s front office that began with the 2019 acquisition of Bryce Harper. Their subsequent signings of big names to even bigger paydays indicated that they were a force to be reckoned with in the free agent market. Their recent playoff success has given them a seat at the table. Regardless if they sign Yamamoto or not, their courting of the Japanese superstar sends a signal to the rest of the league: they are contenders for any big-name free agent that might help them win, regardless of the player’s origin and perhaps even the price-tag. 

So what could a deal for Yamamoto look like? With heavy hitters in the market such as the Mets, Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox, Yamamoto is projected to sign a long-term deal for somewhere around $300 million, by far the largest-ever rookie contract. The reasoning for such a high price tag is twofold: not only is Yamamoto an exceptional talent, pairing a mid-90s fastball with a devastating array of breaking balls en route to a 1.82 ERA in the NPB over seven seasons, he’s also only 25 years old. A long-term with the right-hander would be more than a win-now move, it’d be an investment in the future. 

This creates an interesting situation for the Phillies. To sign Yamamoto, who’d likely have an AAV somewhere in the mid-30 million range, they’d blow past the highest competitive tax threshold of $277 million. They would be required to pay a 95% tax on the overages. They don’t necessarily need another primetime starter – a rotation of at least four, in Zach Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez and Taijuan Walker is set for next season. Their second ranked pitching prospect Mick Abel could arrive in South Philadelphia as soon as 2024. The sport’s top pitching prospect, Andrew Painter, is set to return from Tommy John surgery in 2025. 

Even still, the prospect of Yamamoto in red pinstripes is extremely enticing. Another elite starting pitcher could prove invaluable in the Phillies’ current window of contention. N.L. stalwarts such as the Dodgers and the Braves are loading up on talented arms–one start could be the difference between appearing in another World Series or heading home. It also keeps an eye towards the future. With Harper, Nola and Trea Turner locked in for the long run, the Phillies will be doing everything in their power to avoid a repeat of the 2010s. A sustained rebuild after their current championship window will not be tolerated. An investment in Yamamoto could help ease those transitional years, paving the way for a rotation with Painter, Abel, and perhaps an aging Aaron Nola. The franchise’s trajectory could be altered. The Phillies could hit another peak during Harper and Turner’s time with the team. Perhaps, with Yamamoto, there wouldn’t have to be 11 years between the end of this postseason era and the start of the next.

 

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