TORONTO – The Pacific Rim is an increasingly fertile area of opportunity for major-league teams, which is why the Toronto Blue Jays’ first major ventures into the region are so significant.
Prior to this off-season’s signings of lefty ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and right-hander Shun Yamaguchi, who was formally introduced during a news conference Wednesday, the club’s ledger included only 292 games from five Japanese players and one South Korean. Take out Munenori Kawasaki (201 games) and Seugnhwan Oh (48), and the Blue Jays’ footprint in Asia is practically non-existent.
All of that will change now, and with Ryu’s starts set to be broadcast in South Korea and Yamaguchi due to attract as much or more attention in Japan than Kawasaki used to garner, the Blue Jays are going to have a much higher profile across the Pacific.
Given the talent potentially available in coming years – right-handers Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants, Kohei Arihara of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and the electric Kodai Senga of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are among those who could be up for grabs next winter – now was the right time for the Blue Jays to begin establishing themselves as a prime destination for Pac Rim players.
“We’ll see,” general manager Ross Atkins said when asked how the club’s positioning in the Pacific Rim has changed. “We’re prepared and we feel like that market is really, really strong this upcoming year, and it looks like it will continue to be (after that). We spend a lot of time and energy in making sure we understand it and I think this certainly helps us in a step to continue to acquire talent in those markets.”
The signing of Yamaguchi, a veteran of 14 Nippon Professional Baseball seasons with the Yokohama BayStars and Yomiuri Giants, to a $6.35-million, two-year deal is the real point of progress on that front.
Ryu was already established in the majors when the Blue Jays locked him down with an $80-million, four-year deal. His addition, in a sense, was like that of a typical free agent.
Yamaguchi is the first real fruit borne from the labours of former Pac Rim head Dan Evans, who laid much of the club’s groundwork in the region from 2013 until 2018, and Hideaki Sato, his replacement hired two Novembers ago.
Along with Andrew Tinnish, the team’s vice-president, international scouting, and pro scouting director Ryan Mittleman, among others, Sato has helped expand and deepen the Blue Jays’ connections on a local level, particularly in Japan.
Sato, formerly Yu Darvish’s interpreter, is fluent in Japanese, which has provided the front office with more of the typical background work scouts do in North America – talking directly to other players, coaches, family members. At the same time, he can act as a go-between with available players, providing information on basics like what spring training facilities are like or what Toronto has to offer, details taken for granted with a North American free agent.
Yamaguchi’s first impressions of his new place of employment were fairly typical for a visitor to the city at this time of the year.
“It’s cold weather here in Toronto,” he said in comments interpreted by Sato. “But the people are very warm and welcoming and I really like that.”
As for what tipped the scales in his decision, Yamaguchi said, “What makes it so special is that the Blue Jays are the only team in Canada, and that makes it so much different than other teams. I’m really honoured to play for this team.”
Yamaguchi is intent on winning a spot in the rotation during spring training, but during a media session in which he touched all the right notes, the 32-year-old added that he understands that he must do what’s best for the team.
How he transitions will be fascinating and he admitted that he’ll have to make adjustments to the major-league game.
All but one of the NPB stadiums are equipped to collect TrackMan data, so the Blue Jays were able to do their analytical homework on him. And they have a process for trying to predict how the performance should translate. But much like draft-eligible players in colleges and those in the minor-leagues, such projections are prone to errors, and Yamaguchi’s performance will provide more information to hone their measures for future evaluations.
One thing that should play is the aggressiveness passed down to him by his father, Hisashi, who earned a Maegashira 4 ranking within sumo wrestling’s top Makuuchi division. Yamaguchi provided the highlight of the afternoon when he explained that he chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps because, “I started thinking about in public showing my butt.”
Instead, he shows the public an intensity on the mound praised by just-retired Canadian closer Scott Mathieson, Yamaguchi’s teammate on the Giants the past three years.
“A lot of the Japanese players don’t have that fire that he does,” Mathieson said. “He wants to be on the mound. He’s a competitor.”
The right-hander from Langley, B.C., believes Toronto is an ideal destination for Japanese players, and upon hearing of Yamaguchi’s signing with the Blue Jays, texted him as much.
“I told him, ‘You made a good choice,’” Mathieson said. “I was telling him about Toronto and it’s going to be way easier for him to fit in here than in Milwaukee or Detroit or Philly. Toronto’s a great city – a clean, safe, beautiful city. It’s a very international friendly city. It’s going to be really good for him.”
And potentially really good for the Blue Jays, who up until now hadn’t been able to leverage all that Toronto has to offer Asian players. Kawasaki and Oh were short-lived ambassadors for how good a place it was for them. Ryu and Yamaguchi can now spread the gospel.
Back in 2018, a visitor to the MLB store in Seoul wouldn’t have found a single piece of Blue Jays paraphernalia on the shelves. In Japan, there similarly wasn’t any real presence.
There’s a pathway for Toronto to be a real player now not only in Japan and South Korea, but in Taiwan and other emerging markets, too.
“It just doesn’t always come down to only money,” Atkins said. “We have a very attractive market here for a lot of different populations and we feel this is a very attractive destination for players from the Pac Rim.”
At last the Blue Jays have started to take advantage of that.