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International free agents the Cards might sign

From Senga to Yoshida to less heralded free agents

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

Yesterday, a typical report on a current free agent was posted on Twitter as news. There was nothing remarkable about it, it shared some facts, and didn’t even give any specific teams who were interested. But well

Which goes to show the Cardinals’ recent forays into the international market. The most recent example has not worked out so far in Drew VerHagen, but Kwang-Hyun Kim, Miles Mikolas, and Sueng-Hwan Oh did - very well - so it’s weird to be instantly antagonistic towards this being a possible Cardinals move.

But they do have a point that it could be a Cardinals move. But Drew Rucinski isn’t the only option. There are a few options, and some are more likely than others. Or not likely at all. The Cardinals don’t leak anything and who knows how attached they are to any of these guys. But let’s review some possible international signings.

Kodai Senga, SP (30)

ZiPS projection: 22 GS, 140 IP, 166 Ks, 54 BBs, 3.54 ERA, 2.9 WAR

Projected salary: 4 years, $56 million

Senga is the only free agent where I have access to his ZiPS. Because it was posted on the Top 50 Free agents on Fangraphs. This is admittedly past the point where the Cardinals are usually involved in international free agents. Mikolas had the largest contract of the successful signings, at just 2 years, $16 million. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to see that projected salary and not see a reason to sign him.

You obviously can’t treat an international player’s projection the same as a player with years of MLB experience, but for what it’s worth, if the market valued him like a 2.9 WAR pitcher, a 4-year-deal “should” cost $82 million. Hypothetically, you are getting a heavily discounted 2.9 WAR pitcher with a lot more uncertainty than your typical 2.9 WAR pitcher. He’s getting projected to be paid like a 2.2 WAR pitcher while projecting as a 2.9 WAR player. Seems like not a terrible bet.

Masataka Yoshida, OF (29)

Career in NPB (per 600 PAs): .326/.419/.538, 25 HRs, 4 SBs, 2 CS, 13.1 BB%, 9.4 K%

Those stats look great, but unfortunately I don’t have a projection for you. I don’t know how these would translate. Those K/BB numbers are unbelievable, but they are also... unbelievable. He is not posting anywhere near that disparity in the majors. In a Will Sammon piece on the Athletic, he posted some of the concerns about signing him:

“In Japan, a few of the best pitchers actually played on Yoshida’s team, and he typically saw 85-90 mph with a lot of breaking pitches and four-seam fastballs as opposed to high-velocity two-seamers with sharp movement. For context, the Pacific League (where Yoshida played and highly coveted free-agent Koudai Senga pitched) is considered to be a tougher league to hit in than the Central (where Suzuki and Tsutsugo played). That makes some of Yoshida’s numbers more impressive when compared to some other Japanese players. Another scout wondered if Yoshida received superstar treatment on close pitches that may not go his way as frequently in the U.S. Yoshida’s defense and running didn’t impress, a scout said, so his value solely depends on whether he can hit.”

He is also 5’8, 175 pounds so you have to wonder about the power translating. The writer also pointed out that, while his salary is unknown, it is a reasonable bet to think he will cost less than Seiya Suzuki of the Cubs, who went for 5 years, $85 million since he’s two years older. In fact, maybe let’s look at Suzuki, not because they’re similar players, but for the difference in stats.

Suzuki was a .315/.414/.570 hitter for his career in the NPB with a 13.7 BB% with a 16 K%. In his first season in the majors, he was a .262/.336/.433 hitter with a 9.4 BB% and 24.7 K%. His career .255 ISO dropped to .171. He was originally projected for 2.6 WAR in about 580 PAs and he ended up reaching 2 fWAR in 446 PAs. Pretty much spot on, except for the PAs. This would be helpful if we had his ZiPS.

If we saw a similar difference in K/BB numbers, Yoshida would have a 9% BB rate and 14.5 K% with a .146 ISO. If he managed to do that, he’s most likely an above average hitter. I looked for comps and nobody was perfect, but each example I found was a pretty good hitter. Jurickson Profar walked too much, but had a very low BABIP (.272 BABIP, 110 wRC+), Jose Abreu fits but had a super high BABIP (.350, 137 wRC+), if the power doesn’t translate but the K/BB do, he’ll look something like JP Crawford with maybe a higher BABIP (.275, 104 wRC+) or maybe Andrew Benintendi but a lower BABIP (.352, 122 wRC+). Some may be tempted to go the Steven Kwan route but I kind of doubt he has that elite of a K/BB ratio seeing how much Suzuki’s numbers changed.

Drew Rucinski, 33 (SP)

KBO numbers: 31 GS, 193.2 IP, 24.3 K%, 4.3 BB%, 66.7 GB%, 2.97 ERA/2.88 FIP/2.84 xFIP

This.... actually does sound like a Cardinals pickup. Look at that groundball rate! Rucinski signed the second most lucrative contract in KBO history for the 2022 season at $2 million. If you’re wondering about the VerHagen comparison, well it’s complicated. Because VerHagen had clearly worse stats playing in a harder league. VerHagen posted K/BB numbers of 3 strikeouts to 1 walk. Rucinski had 5.71 strikeouts to one walk. So I feel like, even taking into the competition, he has more control than VerHagen does.

MLB Trade Rumors projects him for a 2 year, $9 million. He may have enough of a market to land at a place that will guarantee him a rotation spot. Or maybe he’ll just go where the money is, he isn’t getting younger. And it’s easier to imagine him being good out of the bullpen. In the report I read, he has a sinker/splitter combo which certainly explains the groundball rate.

Erick Jokisch, 33 (SP)

KBO numbers: 30 GS, 185.1 IP, 20.6 K%, 4.4 BB%, 72 GB%, 2.57 ERA/2.81 FIP/2.87 xFIP

Deja vu? Well Jokisch is left-handed. He was also born in Springfield, Illinois and possibly grew up a Cardinals fan. I’m not entirely sure what his market is - Rucinski was the 50th ranked free agent by MLB Trade Rumors, but Jokisch is unranked - but if his market is similar to Aaron Brooks - minor league deal, but $1 million pro-rated when he is in the majors - that could tip the scales. If the Cardinals are interested. But this is another groundball heavy control artist. Granted, the Cardinals are looking for swings and misses so Rucinski fits more than Jokisch in that sense.

Shintaro Fujinami, 29 (RP)

NPB numbers: 16 G, 66.2 IP, 23.6 K%, 7.6 BB%, 3.38 ERA

Now here’s an interesting story. Fujinami was once one of the premiere pitching prospects in baseball. Way back in the 2015-2016 offseason, the team behind NEIFI posted the best projected young pitchers in baseball and took into account international players. A couple years before he made his way to the States, Shohei Ohtani had the sixth best projected ERA by this system for the 2016 season. And for the best peak projections for 24-and-under pitchers, Fujinama had the seventh best projection, joining Ohtani as the only international players on that list.

Things changed. He declined the next season and in 2017, he was moved to the bullpen. He has struggled since then, having been in the minors for at least part of every season since, including the most recent, although it’s not as clear why since his stats were pretty good. Carter Chapley of the Post-Dispatch, who helpfully provided me with a few names in his article, posted a scouting report of him:

With a 100 mph-plus fastball and a slider-splitter combo that yielded a 9.1 Ks per nine innings rate last season, the biggest question is his command, as he’s prone to falling apart with the yips and wildly missing the strike zone. That tendency contributed to his demotion from starter to reliever in 2017.

Great stuff, no command. Statistically there’s not a great case to get him, but if the Cardinals’ scouts and coaches see something in the video to suggest they can help him, seems a worthy risk. Might not command an MLB deal either.