Ken’s 4 MLB teams under pressure; Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the pitcher everyone wants

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Hall of Fame season is officially upon us, which is good news because free-agency season needs a poke with a stick. We also take a look at the other big Japanese free agent, and Ken checks in with four teams on the hot seat. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to the Windup!

How good is Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

I’ve said a few times in these newsletters that this year’s free-agency class is probably going to be pretty slow until Shohei Ohtani decides where he wants to play and some team figures out the right numbers to write on the contract. But Yoshinobu Yamamoto might be an exception.

The right-handed Japanese pitcher, still just 25, was officially posted this week, meaning he has until Jan. 4 to sign a contract with a big-league team. Yamamoto is coming off a 2023 campaign that saw him go 16-6 in 23 starts, striking out 169 hitters against 28 walks in 164 innings, and posting a minuscule 1.21 ERA. Worried that might have been a one-year aberration? How about we combine the last three seasons? 49-16, 557 2/3 innings, 580 strikeouts, 110 walks, 1.44 ERA.

Oh, you want career numbers? In NPB, he’s 70-29 over his seven-year career, striking out 922 in 897 innings, walking 216 and posting an ERA of 1.82.

What should we expect from him facing big-league hitters? Will Sammon spoke to scouts and those who have played against Yamamoto for this story. The short answer: yeah, he’s pretty good.

I’m certainly not trying to say that any team should bank on Yamamoto over Ohtani when it comes to bolstering their World Series dreams — Ohtani has already proven he can succeed stateside and happens to be one of the best hitters on the planet. But if there’s a team that clearly needs pitching more than hitting — risks duly noted —  it wouldn’t be absurd to think there’s a team out there that might try to secure Yamamoto rather than waiting to find out if they’ve won the Ohtani sweepstakes.

Meanwhile, the Tigers have picked up a Japanese pitcher of their own, keeping Kenta Maeda in the AL Central for the next two years on a contract worth $24 million.

Ken’s Notebook: Teams under pressure

Every team faces pressure to improve in the offseason, but some more than others. Here are four under particular scrutiny, not just from media critics, but their own frustrated fans.

4. Mariners: In need of offense, last week the Mariners traded third baseman Eugenio Suárez, a player who has hit 84 home runs the past three seasons, for high-upside reliever Carlos Vargas and backup catcher Seby Zavala. They also must replace outfielder Teoscar Hernández, to whom they declined to make a qualifying offer.

Both moves created financial flexibility. Suárez, who led the AL in strikeouts last season, will earn $11 million in 2024 with a $2 million buyout for ’25. But while president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto is creative, the market for position players is thin. And many of the team’s fans are as restless as catcher Cal Raleigh, who called out the team for its lack of spending during the final weekend of the regular season.

3. Red Sox: New chief baseball officer Craig Breslow needs to prove he will be more than Chaim Bloom 2.0, and the way to do that is by upgrading the team’s rotation. The problem is the demand in the market exceeds the supply, and many large-market clubs are looking at the same starting pitchers as Boston.

As pointed out by’s Sean McAdam, the Red Sox were top five in spending for the first 18 seasons under their current ownership. But they have been out of the top five the last three seasons and dropped out of the top 10 in 2023. John Henry and company seem ready to spend again. The question is whether Breslow, a former major-league reliever, can close.

2. Giants: They easily could be No. 1 on this list, considering not only their lack of star power but also their recent difficulties adding star power. The Giants could use Ohtani, Yamamoto and Cody Bellinger, three of the top players on the market. They will be fortunate to land one, much less all three.

Ownership granted president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi a reprieve, signing him to a contract extension through 2026, putting him on the same term as new manager Bob Melvin. But Zaidi, coming off 81- and 79-win seasons, knows he needs to create a better, more entertaining product, or he might not last all three years.

1. Yankees: The epic rant by Brian Cashman at the general managers’ meetings was a reaction to the growing criticism of his recent decision-making. Well, as Cashman knows as well as anyone, the way to shut out the noise is to win. And the way for the Yankees to win might be to start money-whipping the competition again.

The New York Post’s Joel Sherman drew a parallel between the Yankees’ current predicament and the one they faced after a disappointing 2013 season. That offseason, they spent a combined $438 million on Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltrán and Brian McCann. Those moves proved a decidedly mixed bag, but the Yankees also spent heavily going into ’09, signing CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett for a combined $424.5 million. That was the year they won their last World Series.

The Yankees are coming off 82 wins, their fewest over 162 games since 1992. Presumably, even their famously restrained owner, Hal Steinbrenner, has seen enough.

Adrián Beltré headlines HOF class

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Adrián Beltré is one of 12 first-timers on the Hall of Fame ballot. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

I had the good fortune of covering the Rangers for the last three years of Adrián Beltré’s career, and here’s my favorite story. It was 2016, and Rougned Odor and José Bautista had just sparked a wild brawl that had been brewing for months. It was pretty tense in the clubhouse after the game; Odor wasn’t available, and Beltré, a veteran, took it upon himself to answer to the media.

Beltré did a good job of playing the part — he gave answers without really saying anything of substance. Asked if he had seen Odor’s solid cross to Bautista’s jaw, he demurred, saying he had been caught up in the play. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News tried to break the tension with a joke: “Did you hear it?”

Beltré stared down at the floor, stone silent. He pinched the bridge of his nose, covered his face, and didn’t move, save for the almost imperceptible shaking of his shoulders. The silence lasted long enough to become awkward, and we leaned in to hear what he was about to say.

“Come on man,” he said, barely holding it together. “I’m trying to be serious here.”

Beltré — whose skills somehow outshone his ability to turn baseball into a comedic performance — headlines this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, which also features 11 other first-timers including Bartolo Colon, Chase Utley and Joe Mauer.

Jayson Stark takes a look at a few interesting questions surrounding this year’s ballot, including whether Beltré could become the first position player to be voted into the hall unanimously.

Speaking of Beltré, he and old friend Félix Hernández are part of the ownership group in the new Baseball United League, based in Dubai. The league features a number of former big leaguers, including Robinson Canó, Andrelton Simmons, and Beltre’s ballot-mate Colon. The league played its first games last week, and Pablo Sandoval became the first player to hit — and this is not a typo — a six-run home run.

More Hall of Fame: This week, we’ll be profiling some of the finalists for the Ford C. Frick Award, the Hall of Fame’s prize for broadcasting excellence. Today, it’s Ken Korach of the A’s, along with Duane Kiper and Mike Krukow of the Giants.

Handshakes and High Fives

Breaking news as we’re headed to press: the Cardinals are reportedly signing Sonny Gray to a three-year deal worth $75 million.

It’s good to see Ichiro still having fun and playing baseball at 50 years old. He’s still hitting 86 mph with his fastball, too.

More than 13,500 of you responded to our fan survey! And you’re … warming up to Rob Manfred? Here are the results.

The Padres have a manager! It’s Mike Shildt, who managed the Cardinals from 2018-2021. He most recently served in player development and as the interim third base coach for the Padres.

It’s Jayson Stark talking to Ron Washington. I don’t think I need to say anything else to sell this one.

I really loved this story by Evan Drellich about Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo and his tendency to tell people he loves them.

You like free-agent and trade proposals? Happy holidays to you, friend. We have enough to make a whole 13th day of Christmas, including our Top 40 free-agent tracker, which includes contract predictions.

And here’s more about the Mariners-Diamondbacks trade from a Seattle perspective.

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(Top photo: Kyodo via AP Images)

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