Pittsburgh Pirates: This Offseason is the Time to Be Aggressive in International Free Agency

The Pirates should turn to the professional international free agent market this winter for a starting pitcher.
Mar 21, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Japan starting pitcher Shota Imanaga (21) pitches against the USA
Mar 21, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Japan starting pitcher Shota Imanaga (21) pitches against the USA / Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates should turn to the international free agent market this offseason to acquire a starting pitcher

The Pittsburgh Pirates will need to acquire some starting pitching this offseason. But this is going to be one of the shallowest free agent classes in a while. After the top of the rotation options like Sonny Gray and Blake Snell, it quickly drops off to middle-to-back of the rotation arms. I wouldn’t be opposed to the Pirates pursuing Kenta Maeda, Michael Lorenzen, or Hyun-Jin Ryu, but they should shoot a little higher and acquire at least one higher quality starting pitching option.

The only upper-tier rotation arm I could see the Pirates going hard after is Jordan Montgomery. He is the definition of consistent, posting an above average ERA in nearly all of his MLB seasons. But if the Pirates decide to turn to another avenue to add starting pitching, then they should turn to the professional international market, rather than the trade market.

One player that was recently announced to be making his way stateside is Shota Imagana. Imagana’s current team, the Yokohama DeNa Baystars will be posting the left-handed starting pitcher, so he will have the opportunity to play Major League Baseball. Imanaga has pitched to a 2.57 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 8.43 K:BB ratio. Imanaga is on pace for his second straight season with both an ERA under 3.00 and WHIP under 1.00. Imanaga is striking out batters at a 30.3% rate while having a walk rate that doesn’t look out of place on the back of a Greg Maddux baseball card (2.9%). 

Throughout his eight-year career in Japan, Imanaga has posted an ERA above 3.00 just twice. That was in 2020 when he was limited to just 53 innings, and in 2018. The lefty sits in the lower-90s, but has a cutter/slider breaking pitch, along with a curveball and splitter off-speed pitch. Imanaga has a shorter stature for a pitcher, with Baseball Reference listing him at 5’10”, 176 pounds. But despite his smaller presence on the mound, he’s been one of the most dominant NBP pitchers.

Another player that everyone will have their eyes on this off-season is Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

Yamamoto is in the midst of a career year with a 1.26 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 6.0 K:BB ratio. Yamamoto has a respectable 25.5% strikeout rate, but has a sub-5% walk rate (4.3%), and an HR/9 rate of just 0.11. While Imanaga has consistently posted an ERA below 3.00 in his career, Yamamoto has consistently posted an ERA below 2.00. If he sustains this immaculate season, this will be the fourth time in the last five seasons Yamamoto will accomplish a sub-2.00 ERA season. His highest single-season ERA is 2.35, which was back in 2017 when he was just 18 years old and in 57.1 innings.

Yamamoto sits closer to the mid-90s range with his four-seam fastball, but can crank the heat up when he needs to. Along with a good fastball, Yamamoto throws a cutter, 12-6 curveball, and a splitter, the final of which is his best secondary offering. Yamamoto is one of the best athletes among pitchers in Japan, and this has helped him develop pinpoint-like command. 

Even though Imanaga and Yamamoto will be the highest-touted pitchers from Japan potentially heading to America, there are others who the Pirates should at least look into, as they could make their way to the United States this offseason. Shosei Togo, Hirto Takahashi, Kaima Taira, and Atsuki Taneichi are other starting pitchers who have made it known they want to play in Major League Baseball, according to MLB Trade Rumors. Granted, as MLBTR also states, factors such as the posting system, contract status, or age will make it more difficult for any of these arms to make the move to US ball.

So why not the trade market? Because the starting pitching free agent depth is so thin, it will be a seller’s market for starters. If the Pirates can get a fair deal done, then go for it. But teams are going to have a higher than average price tag on starting pitchers, and rightfully so. Once Snell, Nola, Montgomery, and Gray are off the market, options are going to be limited, and it’s a quick dropoff from higher-level starting pitcher to middle and lower tier starting pitchers.

If the Pirates have the opportunity to go after a top international pitcher, they should take it. It might end up being a better avenue than going after one of the other free agents, or going after a pitcher on the trading block.

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