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What the Phillies meeting with Yoshinobu Yamamoto means

It’s important even if he doesn’t become a Phillie.

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Olympics: Baseball-Men Semifinal - JPN-KOR Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

It was reported yesterday that the Phillies were meeting with superstar Japanese free agent Yoshinobu Yamamoto. So far they are one of about a half dozen teams to be heavily connected to Yamamoto, with the favorites to win his services being the Yankees and Dodgers. We will most likely never know exactly how this meeting went or what was said in it. We can have a guess based on where Yamamoto eventually signs. But for the Phillies, the fact that a meeting exists is a huge positive sign.

Being in serious contention for a big free agent from Japan is uncharted territory for the Phillies. In the 140 year history of the franchise, only two players born in Japan have ever suited up in Phillies pinstripes. They are Tadahito Iguchi (2007, 2008) and So Taguchi (2008) who appeared in a combined 137 games for the Phillies (Taguchi also happens to be the hitting coach for Yamamoto’s Orix Buffaloes). To say the Phillies haven’t had much history or luck when it comes to signing former Nippon Professional Baseball players is an understatement.

That is why their interest in Yamamoto is so unique. They don’t have the history of incorporating Japanese stars as a way to sway Yamamoto to their side as teams like the Dodgers and Yankees do. Los Angeles can pitch him about employing Hideo Nomo, a player many credit with opening the door to future NPB stars to relocate to the United States. And of course, they now also employ Shohei Ohtani, who happens to be the best player in the world and played with Yamamoto on the 2023 World Baseball Classic champion Team Japan. They also have the geographical advantage of being the closest to Japan due to being on the west coast. The Yankees could pitch Yamamoto with the example of Hideki Matsui, who thrived in New York and won the 2009 World Series MVP award against the Phillies. They even have a recent track record of incorporating a Japanese pitcher with Masahiro Tanaka.

The Phillies on the other hand, have none of that. They don’t have a track record of Japanese players succeeding. They don’t have a previous star to point to who became a franchise legend. They really don’t have a history at all. In fact, when Ohtani was a free agent after being posted in 2017, the only thing he thought about Philadelphia was taking a photo at the Rocky statue.

Which is exactly why this meeting is important even if it doesn’t lead to Yamamoto becoming a Phillie.

Dave Dombrowski has said that one of the first things he noticed when he took over baseball operations for the Phillies was their lack of information on players from Japan and Korea.

Dombrowski and the Phillies have sought to rectify this situation in recent years, as they have increased their scouting efforts and presence in Asia. It’s no coincidence then that the Phillies are seen as in the mix for Yamamoto.

Obviously, the best possible outcome for the meeting is Yamamoto agreeing to a contract with the Phillies. But that would take a Cliff Lee-esque miracle of Yamamoto spurning other teams as it’s been reported that the Phillies will likely not be the top bidder. In all likelihood, he will be taking his talents elsewhere.

So then why agree to meet? Well, because the meeting benefits both sides even if an agreement doesn’t come out of it. Yamamoto’s camp knows that the Phillies are big spenders. They likely took the meeting as a means of leverage against the other teams to scare them into offering more money. For the Phillies, they want to make it known that they are serious players for future Japanese stars looking to make the transition to the US.

Yamamoto will not be the last superstar free agent from NPB. Young phenom Rōki Sasaki has already requested to be posted, but his request will likely be denied by his team. The 22-year-old starter has dazzled in NPB, with a 2.00 ERA across 46 career starts and an otherworldly 376:56 strikeout to walk ratio. He will most likely have to wait until 2026, but it’s obvious that he wants to come to MLB.

Munetaka Murakami, a 23-year-old 3B/1B who slugged 56 home runs in 2022, will probably precede Sasaki, as he is likely to be posted in 2025.

The Phillies will almost certainly want to be involved in the markets for both of those players. Visiting Yamamoto makes it clear that they are serious about adding Japanese talent to their team and are willing to pay top dollar for it. It also shows that a top Japanese star has at least agreed to hear them out even if there are other factors in play. This will pay dividends down the road, as Japan has emerged as a preeminent scouting location rich with elite talent. Maybe next time the players will consider Philadelphia for more than a statue.