Gone: A face-of-the-franchise shortstop on a startling long-term deal that surpassed all expectations. Arrived: A star from Japan’s NPB signed amid suggestions of a team blowing past the rest of the market’s valuation and questions about how his skill-set will translate in MLB.
That pairing of transactions headlined the Red Sox’ roster overhaul this winter. On Dec. 7, they agreed to a five-year, $90 million deal with outfielder Masataka Yoshida (as well as a $15.375 million posting fee to the Orix Buffaloes, Yoshida’s former team), hours before Xander Bogaerts agreed to an 11-year, $280 million deal with the Padres. Both moves shocked the industry.
Yet the Red Sox are not the first team to experience such a combination of transactions. In the winter of 2000, the Mariners saw Alex Rodriguez leave on a 10-year, $252 million deal. They responded not by adding an established MLB star but instead with the acquisition of Ichiro Suzuki, secured with a $13.1 million posting fee and then signed to a three-year, $14 million deal.
Suzuki proved sensational. He was named both American League Rookie of the Year and MVP as the Mariners won 116 games in 2001, a year in which Suzuki made his first of 10 All-Star teams and won his first of 10 Gold Gloves in a career that seems virtually certain to yield election into the Hall of Fame in 2025, his first year of eligibility.
“It looks like a bargain in this market,” said Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame executive who signed Suzuki for the Mariners and who now serves as a Phillies senior adviser. “He was probably a bargain in that market.”
Yet not every team agreed. In fact, no one else came close to Seattle’s posting bid, as the Mariners intentionally blew away the market.
Mariners Pacific Rim scout Jim Colborn had spent time as the pitching coach of the Orix Blue Wave at the start of Suzuki’s career with the team, then as a scout helped Seattle forge a working relationship with Orix.
While some in the industry questioned how Suzuki’s talent might translate in the states given that, at the time, no career-long NPB position player had made the move to MLB, Colborn had no doubts.
“I cast my bet,” recalled Colborn. “I said he would be a batting champion, he’d have 200 hits, he would knock in 80 runs, he’d steal 50 bases, he’d have 15 outfield assists. I think that was pretty much it. And I said he’d do that within the first five years. He did it all in the first year. So I was pleasantly surprised.”
Colborn recalled recommending the Mariners bid $10 million in the posting process, confident that would be enough to land the international star. But team owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was based in Japan, made clear that the Mariners must win the bidding, offering millions of dollars of his own money to ensure the outcome.
Seattle settled on a $13.1 million bid. According to reports at the time, only four other teams joined the auction, and none came close to the Mariners.
“The Dodgers were interested too, and they bid like $9 million,” said Colborn. “I was really proud that I had the instincts to guess right, but [$13.1 million] would have been a fail-safe bid.”
In the subsequent two decades since Suzuki’s arrival, while many NPB pitchers have thrived in the United States, the performance of position players has been more scattered. Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and the incomparable Shohei Ohtani emerged as stars. Other position players, such as Kaz Matsui and more recently Shogo Akiyama and Yoshi Tsutsugo have been overmatched.
The relatively small sample and range of performances among position players has contributed to less consensus in projecting offensive performances for players transitioning from the NPB to MLB than is the case for MLB free agents with established track records.
“Of course there’s going to be more variance in our projections just based on fewer players coming over,” said Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer. “And I think that that also leads to greater uncertainty in what the bidding process is going to be, because the third-party sources that are normally predicting where markets may go are probably less accurate.”
Hoyer and the Cubs confronted that uncertainty in 2021-22 when pursuing Seiya Suzuki. Faced with common questions about the transition from the NPB to MLB — How would he handle nightly mid-to-high-90s velocity? What holes might he have in his game? — the Cubs used the lockout to use available pitch and batted ball data to dive into those questions.
Ultimately, the Cubs felt comfortable enough with what they saw — and with Suzuki’s athleticism, tools (particularly his power), defense, age (27 at the time of signing), and the fact that he wouldn’t require the sacrifice of a draft pick — to win the bidding for Suzuki with a five-year, $85 million offer.
Some teams viewed that commitment as an overpay. But the Cubs, like the Mariners two decades earlier, are less concerned about perception than with the player they added.
“I actually think our evaluation was really accurate,” Hoyer said, reflecting on Suzuki’s .262/.336/.433 line in 111 games as a rookie in 2022. “He’s an immensely physically talented 28-year-old who, certainly at times last year, showed what we think he’s going to be able to do going forward. But candidly, I’m thankful that we’re through that first year. I learned so much and I’m sure he learned so much just about the assimilation process. He’s such a hard worker and so diligent. Both sides learned a lot about each other and about how we can be really successful going forward.”
The Cubs aren’t the only ones who believe they had a good handle on Suzuki’s transition to MLB. The Red Sox, who have developed one of the larger scouting presences in the NPB, likewise felt their scouts and analysts produced an accurate picture of how the outfielder would perform.
Still, the Sox, who had identified Yoshida as a prime target more than three years ago, spent 2022 trying to make their evaluation process as thorough as possible with a sizable scouting presence (Japan area scout Kento Matsumoto, Pacific Rim coordinator Brett Ward, scouting vice presidents Gus Quattlebaum and Mike Rikard, and special assignment scout Steve Peck).
They also brought analyst Dan Meyer to Japan to adjust the team’s models to account for on-field changes in the NPB, particularly the increased prevalence of high-octane velocity, and Yoshida’s performance against it. Ultimately, the Red Sox concluded that Yoshida has a chance to be an elite hitter, the best pure hitter from Japan since Ichiro Suzuki.
A thorough process doesn’t guarantee an accurate evaluation. The Red Sox are well aware of the perception that they drastically outbid the market consensus, even as they insist that other teams were prepared to bid more aggressively for Yoshida than has been widely reported.
Ultimately, as has been the case with other stars from Japan, now that the Red Sox have Yoshida, the scale of their offer relative to the market is unimportant. What matters now is how he performs relative to the team’s expectations.
“When you have the right information, the right evaluators, the right makeup in a player, you’ve got to go ahead and go with them,” said Gillick. “A general manager job’s is to hire the right people, put them in a slot, and give them the authority to work and do things, not to look over their shoulder. So if you’ve got good people, you’ve got to trust them.”
LACK OF MOVEMENT
Trade market not what it used to be
While the free agent market proved historically robust, the trade market has proven anticlimactic relative to recent offseasons.
The biggest names to move have been catcher Sean Murphy going from the A’s to the Braves in a three-team deal; the Diamondbacks sending talented young outfielder Daulton Varsho to the Blue Jays for elite catching prospect Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel; Toronto sending slugger Teoscar Hernández to the Mariners for reliever Erik Swanson; Seattle’s addition of Brewers second baseman Kolten Wong for outfielder Jesse Winker and infielder Abraham Toro; and the Tigers’ deals of two relievers with All-Star Games on their résumés (Gregory Soto and Joe Jiménez).
To be sure, there are some interesting names in that mix. But on the whole, it was a ho-hum trade market.
Previous winters had featured show-stopping deals involving Chris Sale (2016-17); Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich (2017-18); Paul Goldschmidt, J.T. Realmuto, Edwin Díaz, and Robinson Canó (2018-19); Mookie Betts, Corey Kluber, and Sandy Léon (2019-20); and Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Blake Snell, and Yu Darvish (2020-21).
The 2021-22 trade market lacked a deal involving a superstar at his peak but still featured prominent swaps involving Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Josh Donaldson, and Chris Bassitt. This winter has offered a faint shadow of those predecessors.
“Obviously the offseason is still going on. We are no stranger to sometimes making significant moves late in the offseason,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, alluding to the February 2020 trade of Betts. “So I wouldn’t assume that the offseason has settled, but it has been a slower market.”
Why the relative lack of movement of stars? Why the calm trade market after the free agent frenzy?
First, several teams were able to complete their to-do lists entirely in free agency by the end of December. Why shop at two malls at the holidays when you can complete your shopping at one? Meanwhile, some evaluators opined that the 12-team playoff format introduced last year has a) reduced the number of teams who view themselves as out-of-contention offseason sellers; and b) led sellers to seek young, big league-ready talent rather than lower-levels prospects — a formula that limits the number of interested trade partners who see depth as a critical factor to contend.
Barnes trade marks end of era
The trade of Matt Barnes to the Marlins marked the end of a Red Sox era for one of the most impactful draft classes in franchise history. In 2011, the Red Sox drafted and signed nine future big leaguers: Barnes and Blake Swihart (first round), Henry Owens and Jackie Bradley Jr. (supplemental first round), Williams Jerez (second) Jordan Weems (third), Noe Ramirez (fourth) Mookie Betts (fifth), and Travis Shaw (ninth).
The nine big leaguers are tied for the most by the Sox in a draft. The three All-Stars (Betts, Barnes, and Bradley) are tied for the second most by the Sox in a draft, behind only the four All-Stars selected in 1968 (Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, Bill Lee, and Lynn McGlothen). Betts, Bradley, and Barnes were all key contributors to the 2018 World Series title.
This season is likely to be the first since 2012 without a member of the 2011 draft class on the big league roster.
“Playing with one team for that long — one individual, let alone a group of people — is incredibly rare to see,” Barnes said of the group’s run in Boston. “It’s hard to keep that many guys. Honestly, the person that I would have expected to stay in Boston there for their entire career from that draft would be Mookie. The fact that he isn’t there is still crazy to me. But such is the nature of the business, right?”
Betts (Dodgers), Barnes (Marlins), and Weems (Nationals) are the only players from that class on 40-man rosters. Shaw announced his retirement last month. Bradley is an unsigned free agent, enjoying family life in Florida. Ramirez is a free agent who is soon expected to sign a minor league deal. Swihart, Owens, and Jerez spent last year in independent ball.
Barnes left the Red Sox with the third-most pitching appearances (486) in franchise history, behind Bob Stanley (637) and Tim Wakefield (590).
“[Roger] Clemens and [Jonathan] Papelbon, I’ve thrown more games than them in a Red Sox uniform,” said Barnes. “I’m like, ‘Damn, that is up with the big dogs.’ ”
The trade does come with financial benefits for Barnes. The salary for his 2024 team option will go from $8 million to $9 million, while the buyout of that option will increase from $2.25 million to $2.75 million.
The Red Sox won’t rule out further roster changes before spring training starts and continue to look to add up-the-middle depth, but team officials suggested that further tweaks are likely limited to the roster’s margins. “We like the group that we have,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom . . . The Red Sox sent a number of prospects this winter to train at Driveline Baseball in Kent, Wash., one of the most renowned data-driven development facilities in the game. The group included pitchers Chris Murphy, Ryan Zeferjahn, Joey Stock, Nathan Landry, Isaac Coffey, and Connor Butler, as well as position players Nick Yorke and Phillip Sikes. Murphy was particularly impressed watching newly signed Mets starter Kodai Senga. “He’s very structured,” Murphy said. “I was kind of taking notes on how he approached it and what it takes to get to that point.” Murphy said he focused on repeating the start of his delivery in order to become more precise in his strike-throwing . . . Former Red Sox minor leaguer Josh Ockimey, a 2014 fifth-round pick who spent eight years in the Sox system before signing as a minor league free agent with the Phillies for the 2022 season, announced his retirement as a player. He’s been hired by the Red Sox as a pro scout. “This game has given me so much, and I am very thankful for every moment!” he wrote on Instagram . . . A remarkable note on the résumé of unsigned free agent Michael Wacha: Aaron Judge is 0 for 15 with 10 strikeouts and three walks against him. No other pitcher who has faced Judge more than 10 times has held the Yankee slugger hitless . . . The WooSox Foundation has partnered with the Worcester Public Library and the United Way of Central Massachusetts to bring an exhibit from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to the library celebrating the life of Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil. The exhibit runs through April 2 . . . Happy 45th birthday, Devern Hansack. After he was released by the Astros in 2004, Hansack had quit professional baseball to work as a lobsterman in Nicaragua, but parlayed a stint on Nicaragua’s national team into an opportunity with the Red Sox in 2006. After a strong season in Double A Portland that included a victory in the Sea Dogs’ Eastern League championship clincher, Hansack received a promotion to the big leagues at the end of the season, throwing a rain-shortened, five-inning no-hitter in the 2006 season finale against the Orioles. Hansack made nine big league appearances over three years — sips of coffee that netted him a ring in 2007. He now lives in Maine, and threw out the first pitch before a Sea Dogs playoff game last season . . . Sunday marks the 89th anniversary of Henry Aaron’s birth, and Monday marks the 128th anniversary of Babe Ruth’s birth. It remains mind-blowing to think that both started their affiliated MLB careers with Boston teams — Ruth when he was purchased by the Red Sox from the Baltimore Orioles of the International League in 1914, and Aaron when he was acquired by the Boston Braves from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1952, less than a year before Boston’s National League team moved to Milwaukee.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.