I’ve been working hard to prepare for my three-part “Master Plan” series. In that series, I’ll present my version of the Cardinals’ offseason strategy using the same budget and personnel constraints facing John Mozeliak and the front office.
You can find the first article in that series here: The Master Plan (Part 1): Settling the 40-Man Roster, Depth Chart, and Budget.
This process has led me down some pretty deep rabbit holes to research and investigate options for the club. That’s work that might or might not make its way into an actual article, but it is work that’s certainly worth bringing to the light of day.
One of the players that I’m looking at very closely is Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Yamamoto is a 25-year-old Japanese pitcher with incredible statistics in Japan, a dynamic arm, and ace-level potential in MLB.
He’s exactly the kind of player that the Cardinals need to be investing in.
And he’s exactly the kind of risk that the Cardinals have always tried to avoid.
That’s because not only will Yamamoto require a hefty MLB salary despite not having played a single MLB inning, but he’ll also require the club to pay a posting fee to buy his rights away from his Japanese squad.
That’s like double-paying for one player. As we learned from the whole Luis Robert situation years ago, the Cardinals don’t want to pay just to have to turn around and pay again. Even if the talent is worth it.
Before I drop Yamamoto’s name into my projected acquisitions and say “The Cardinals need to get this guy!” we need to figure out the financials. Is there a way to make a Yamamoto contract and posting fee make sense relative to his talent and MLB projections?
Estimating Yamamoto’s Contract
Let’s start with his contract. Spotrac has a convenient way of sorting contracts by country of origin. If we set that to Japan it brings up all of the current MLB players from Japan, their total contract, and their annual value for this coming season. Note that it doesn’t cover all Japanese contracts forever, only current contracts. So, Yu Darvish’s deal is not his original contract. Neither is Masahiro Tanaka’s. We’ll have to look at those separately.
Still, Spotrac’s info does help us identify the most recent (and most relevant) contracts from Japanese or Korean players. Here’s a sampling:
Masataka Yoshida: 5/$90M
Seiya Suzuki: 5/$85M
Kodai Senga: 5/$75M
Yusei Kikuchi: 3/$36
Down it goes from there. And that’s somewhat surprising. There are a few talented players on the list and some that had quite a bit of hype when they came over. That hype, though, clearly does not translate into instant payment. Why not?
Here’s the simple answer: Risk. Lots of risk.
Take Masataka Yoshida. He was a player who earned a lot of chatter among Cardinals fans but barely got a sniff from the front office. The Red Sox nabbed him for $90M and are paying him an average of $18M per year. In his first season in the majors, he provided a 109 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR. Offensively, he was pretty solid but his defense was horrendous and that cut deeply into his production totals.
$90M committed. $18M per year. Less than 1 fWAR received.
On the flip side is Kodai Senga, a player some here hoped the Cardinals would target. They didn’t. Senga translated his K and BB totals to the majors very well. His stuff held up as expected. He produced 3.4 fWAR in 166 innings. He’s more than earning that $15M per year salary.
How do you know that Yoshida will stumble? That Senga’s rates will translate? You can make your projections, run the analytics, and scout heavily. But at the end of the day, you just don’t.
Back to Yamamoto. I’ve seen some fans throwing around $30M AAV projections for Yamamoto’s contract. I can see the logic. He looks like he has ace-level arm talent. We all want to assume he’ll provide ace-level production. Aces make $30M annually. Yamamoto will cost $30M annually.
Historically, that’s not the way this has worked. Based on his age and ability, Yamamoto should brush past Senga’s contract but he’s not arriving in the majors as a 25-year-old Clayton Kershaw.
He might have an ace projection and an ace arm. But he won’t get ace money.
Spotrac seems to be taking that approach. They have Yamamoto as the #8th ranked free agent of the offseason earning a 5/$85M contract. That’s a $17M average annual value. It beats out Senga’s contract, but not by very much. That seems a tad low to me when we consider age, ability, upside, etc.
On the other side of the ledger, Bob Nightengale believes that Yamamoto’s contract could top $160M. That number is probably being fed to him by MLB agents, but it’s also one that has a historical reference point.
Back in 2014, then 25-year-old Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka got a 7/$155M salary to come over from Japan and play for the Yankees. Two years earlier, Yu Darvish got just $60M over 6 years from the Rangers.
You’ll notice that no current player has matched the 7/$155M salary that Tanaka signed when he was 25. It seems likely that Darvish’s success inflated Tanaka’s market. Based on the contract history I’ve seen, that bubble has since burst.
Or maybe there just hasn’t been another talent like Tanaka since? (Except for Ohtani, who was in a very different situation.)
Either or both could be true. Tanaka’s production never reached 2014’s $22M standards. That was elite ace level of money during that era. Tanaka had one excellent 4.7 fWAR season but was more frequently in the 2-3 fWAR range. The Yankees overpaid for what they got and no one has gotten that money since.
What do we do with those two projections? Let’s assume that Nightengale’s $160M contract suggestion is over 7 years — the same as Tanaka. Then, to make this easy, we can just split the difference between the two projections.
Yamamoto Projected Contract: 6/$120M, $20M AAV
24: $15M, 25: $17.5M, 26: $20M, 27: $20M, 28: $22.5M, 29: $25M
That’s a very affordable deal for the Cardinals. They could go quite a bit higher to win him if they need to.
Estimating Yamamoto’s Posting Fee
The posting fee will go on top of that. The good news is that I don’t think such a fee will count against the team’s current payroll.
In a previous article, I indicated that the Cardinals, based on the way that they count deferrals and signing bonuses, would likely count all of Yamamoto’s posting fee in the year that it was paid. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Posting fees are expenses paid from one organization to another for the rights to negotiate with a player. They do not count against a team’s luxury tax as they are not considered part of player payroll according to the CBA.
Think of it more like a personnel expense. Like chartering flights. Or paying for suites for certain players on road trips. It’s part of payroll expenses. But it isn’t roster-centered payroll and doesn’t need to go against my bottom line.
It will go against the Cardinals’ bottom line. And that could be the problem.
What will the posting fee be? Here’s the formula:
20% of the first $25M = $5M
17.5% of the next $25M = $4.38
15% of the rest = $10.5M
Total Posting Fee: $19.9M
That’s a lot of money. But it’s not insane. It doesn’t seem nearly so bad when the Cardinals consider that he doesn’t come with a qualifying offer attached. And his first-year salary of around $15M (by my projections) could be about $12M less than what someone like Aaron Nola is going to require.
Should the Cardinals target him? They definitely need to talk to him and see how the market goes. That said, I’m not sure that he’s my number 1 option. Because… say it with me… Risk.
Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos.