Pittsburgh Pirates: An International First Baseman to Potentially Pursue

The Pirates could find their next first baseman on the international market.
Mar 21, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Japan first baseman Kazuma Okamoto (25) celebrates his home run
Mar 21, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Japan first baseman Kazuma Okamoto (25) celebrates his home run / Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates need a first baseman for the long haul, and they might find their answer on the international market this winter in the form of Kazuma Okamato.

First base is still up in the air for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They only have one noteworthy first base prospect, that being Malcom Nuñez. However, the fact Nuñez has not gotten an opportunity in Pittsburgh and was not protected from the Rule 5 Draft last offseason makes it seem that the Pirate front office is not very high on Nuñez.

Their only options currently in the bigs are Connor Joe, who’s more of a corner outfielder than a first baseman, and Alfonso Rivas. This year’s free agent market is also fairly shallow. But maybe the Pirates could find their next first baseman on the professional international market.

The professional international market differs from the amateur international market in a few ways. As per the CBA, a professional international free agent is 25 or older, meaning they are free to sign a major league deal. In 2017-2018, when the LA Angels signed Shohei Ohtani, they were forced to offer him just a minor league deal with a signing bonus. A few years later, when the San Diego Padres signed Ha-Seong Kim, they were free to offer him four years and $28 million. The money the Pirates have for amateur international free agents cannot be used toward signing a pro one (so for example, the international pool money the Pirates acquired in the Austin Hedges trade cannot be used here).

With the current posting system that MLB and the NBP have worked out, players in Japan who do not have nine years of service time are eligible to request to be posted for Major League clubs to pursue. If a player is posted, they have 45 days to sign with a Major League team. If they do not come to an agreement by then, they return to their NBP club.

A few days ago, Jon Morosi posted on X (Twitter) that teams are evaluating NBP’s current home run leader, Kazuma Okamoto. Okamoto will be required to request his services to be posted for Major League clubs to pursue. He is currently in his eighth year of NBP play (so after 2024, he will become eligible to sign with a United States club, unrestricted), and so far it’s been his best season yet.

Okamoto, in 508 plate appearances, has already slugged 38 home runs, which marks the sixth season in a row he’s hit at least 30, and is one shy from tying his single-season career high. Overall, he’s slashing .303/.395/.633. It is also the first time he’s ever posted an OPS above 1.000, coming in at 1.027. Okamoto has struck out in 18.7% of his plate appearances while also carrying a quality 12% walk rate.

Okamato has split his career between first base and third base throughout his career. The hot corner has been his primary position, logging 752 total games at the position. But he’s spent more than enough time at first base for a Major League team to consider him at the position as well. He has also played first in 342 contests, including it being his primary position in 2018-2019, and having played it 56 times this season. Okamato has also played a handful of games in the outfield, but corner infield is his primary position.

Again, it’s not 100% certain that the Pirates, nor any team for that matter, will have an opportunity to sign Okamoto this off-season. It’s not even guaranteed he’ll request to be posted. However, teams are already sending feelers out to test the waters on the Japanese slugger. If Okamato is posted, I think the Pirates should make a real effort to acquire him. He would give the team a regular first baseman for the foreseeable future.

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