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Yoshinobu Yamamoto is the most important name this offseason

Perhaps the secret to the offseason.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto celebrating on the mound. Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Yoshinobu Yamamoto is not a name that most San Francisco Giants fans were familiar with a year ago. For that matter, outside of the most online segment of the fanbase, I’d gander that Yamamoto is not a name that most Giants fans are familiar with today.

And yet here I sit, a lowly and distracted sportswriter, in a chair that my rear end is becoming increasingly aware of just why it was given away for free, prepared to spend thousands of words telling you why Yamamoto is the most important name surrounding the Giants as we head into a critical free agency period that may determine, among other things, the championship fortunes of the team, and the employment status of Farhan Zaidi.

We know the Giants are interested in Yamamoto. We know this because every team is. But we also know it because Zaidi has been shockingly transparent about how highly the Giants regard the right-hander, telling NBC Sports Bay Area that, “He’s really one of the top starting pitchers in the world. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not ... It’s just a tremendous combination of athleticism, stuff and command ... It just looks like he’s got plus stuff and he’s sort of putting every pitch where he wants to, which in this day and age where we’re so worried about pitch characteristics and velocity, it’s almost different to see somebody execute at that high of a level with good stuff.”

Signing Yamamoto — who figures to get a contract approaching, if not exceeding $200 million, plus a posting fee — would clearly improve the Giants roster. But many players would improve the Giants roster, and I haven’t written articles stating that they’re the most important name of the offseason. And, for that matter, I won’t.

So what is it about Yamamoto that makes him a key to unlocking a world of success in Giantsland? Well, I’m glad you asked! Let’s dig in.

He’s really freaking good

Seems like a rather self-explanatory point, doesn’t it?

But the “freaking” part here is important. One can never know how a player will perform in the Majors until they’re in the Majors but ... all signs point towards Zaidi not being hyperbolic when he calls Yamamoto one of the top starting pitchers in the world. Not top starting pitcher free agents. Not top starting pitcher prospects. Top starting pitchers. Full stop.

To make that point, let me present the season numbers for three different pitchers to you.

  • Pitcher A (24 years old): 1.16 ERA, 0.860 WHIP, 9.3 strikeouts per nine, 1.5 walks per nine, 7.13 innings per start
  • Pitcher B (29 years old): 1.89 ERA, 1.041 WHIP, 9.7 strikeouts per nine, 3.0 walks per nine, 6.43 innings per start
  • Pitcher C (30 years old): 2.98 ERA, 1.220 WHIP, 10.9 strikeouts per nine, 4.2 walks per nine, 5.73 innings per start

Pitcher A is Yamamoto in 2023, in the NPB. Pitcher B is Kodai Senga in 2022, in the NPB. Pitcher C is Senga in 2023, his first year in the Majors.

You can’t make a projection based solely on that. But if you’re curious as to how previous NPB aces have seen their stuff translate, there it is. Senga was not nearly as dominant as Yamamoto in the NPB, was five years older, and in his first pass through the Majors cooly posted the fifth-lowest ERA of any starting pitcher.

The Giants can point to injuries all they want. They can fire Gabe Kapler 109 more times. They could print a Daryl Morey-inspired book about how poor umpiring cost them 276 runs on bad check swing calls. But the reality is that the single biggest issue with the 2023 team — by a mile — was not having enough talent.

Yamamoto doesn’t fix that, but he certainly changes it in a favorable way. Remember last year, when we got to watch Logan Webb, Carlos Rodón, and Alex Cobb pitch on consecutive days? Now imagine that but with Kyle Harrison and Keaton Winn filling things out.

Looks good, doesn’t it?

He fits the timeline

Zaidi has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t like giving long-term contracts to pitchers, which is understandable. Most free agents are in their 30s, and pitchers are volatile in terms of success and, more importantly, injuries.

He also spelled out very clearly last week that securing long-term contracts to build an established core is a priority of the offseason.

Those things stand in contrast to one another ... unless the Giants make a trade, or sign Yamamoto.

Yamamoto turned 25 in August. He’s more than a year-and-a-half younger than Webb. He’s more than a year younger than Camilo Doval. He’s not even a year older than Patrick Bailey and Casey Schmitt.

Zaidi is not wholly averse to long-term contracts for pitchers, as Webb’s recent five-year extension proved. But the risk-vs-reward equation gets less favorable with every year tacked onto a player’s arm, especially with a fast-evolving understanding of the science behind the seemingly finite number of pitches that most pitchers can throw.

The other top names on the pitching market are Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, and Sonny Gray. The Giants could sign Yamamoto to a five-year deal and when he next hit free agency he would still be younger than Nola and Snell are right now. They could sign him to an eight-year deal and have that be true for Gray.

You can forgive the hesitancy to lock up a pitcher already in his 30s to a long-term contract, and you can doubly forgive that hesitancy when the core players the team is building around are all 26 or younger.

But a 25 year old? It’s basically like signing a top-five prospect who’s ready to debut. That’s a player who makes the 2024 Giants, the 2028 Giants, and everything in between better.

He creates an area of strength

Don’t get me wrong, the ideal is to build a great baseball team on both sides of the ball. The Giants weakness is their offense, and it needs to be addressed in some form or fashion.

But there’s something to be said for having an area of strength. And we’re increasingly seeing that an overwhelming strength is often enough.

Need an example? The Atlanta Braves just capped off a historically great season in which they had the 15th-best ERA in the Majors. The Los Angeles Dodgers casually rattled off another 100-win season with the 13th-best ERA in the Majors. Both of those figures are worse than what the Giants posted, but both Atlanta and Los Angeles had a better team OPS than any individual Giant not named Wilmer Flores. The Milwaukee Brewers, on the other hand, coasted to a division title with the best ERA in the Majors, and an offense that was arguably worse than the Giants’.

But honestly, that’s not really the point I’m trying to get at, just a happy sidebar. Let’s say the 2024 Giants have a rotation that consists of top-end starters Webb, Cobb, and Yamamoto. Let’s say Harrison pitches two-thirds as well as the Giants are hoping and expecting. Let’s say Winn is a solid inning-eating, 4.35 ERA-having fifth guy, with Anthony DeSclafani and Tristan Beck filling in where needed.

That’s one of the best rotations in the Majors but, critically, it’s comprised almost entirely of young arms who are all under team control for many, many years.

The Giants have exciting arms waiting in the wings. You know the names: Carson Whisenhunt, Mason Black, Hayden Birdsong, Reggie Crawford, Joe Whitman, Landen Roupp, Carson Seymour, Trevor McDonald, Gerelmi Maldonado, Hayden Wynja, John Michael Bertrand, Ryan Murphy. That’s a lot of depth, some already prepared to contribute, some further down the line.

What we see from the best teams in the Majors is an ability to trade from strength. The most successful teams know they can trade from their strongest position without it hurting, and can address a weakness in the process.

This is a poor example since it’s a much lower-level of player, but it’s fresh in our minds. Last offseason the Tampa Bay Rays traded Brett Wisely — someone they really liked — to the Giants. Why did they give up on a young middle infielder that they thought highly of? Because they had a 24-year old budding star at third base, a 22-year old superstar (and not yet known creep) at shortstop, a proven quality vet still in his 20s at second base, two 50-grade left-side infield prospects, a 45+-grade shortstop, and two 45-grade middle infield prospects. They basically had a set young core of infielders, with two Marco Lucianos, two Casey Schmitts, and an Aeverson Arteaga all knocking on the door. They liked Wisely. They also let him go for a prospect that’s further off and no one noticed a thing.

The Giants are on the precipice of reaching that point with their starting pitching. Adding Yamamoto who, again, is younger than Webb — and very possibly better than Webb — pushes them firmly over the edge. It pushes them into the territory where they could trade a Whisenhunt or a Black or a Birdsong and, our sadness notwithstanding, we wouldn’t notice the loss; but we’d sure notice the gain at a different position. It even puts them in a position where if the San Diego Padres say they’re willing to trade Juan Soto but have their sights set on Harrison, the Giants just might entertain it; might even throw in a Beck to sweeten the pot.

As the old saying goes, value is value. But when that value is stacked at one spot, it diminishes the hit you take in a trade, and allows you to maximize the return.

He helps them land Shohei Ohtani

Perhaps this is me being wishful, but I really don’t think there’s a limit to what the Giants would spend to get Ohtani. They’re aware of his star power and the money he brings an organization due to his massive fame, and they’re certainly aware of their mediocre attendance figures. Sure, if they open the offseason by signing Nola to a $175 million deal and then add Cody Bellinger for $350 million, you can probably assume they’re not going to drop $600 milli on Ohtani.

But I don’t think one move changes the equation for them, at all. I don’t think any one contract doled out is going to keep them from handing Ohtani a blank check.

Yamamoto certainly helps Ohtani sign that check though.

I don’t know how close Ohtani and Yamamoto are. But I do know that they played together for Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic. And I know that Yamamoto is one of the limited number of people that Ohtani follows on Instagram. And I know that most people, when choosing what office they want to work at, would be fairly influenced by having someone from their home country, who speaks their language also working in that office.

Also he makes the Giants better which, you know, is probably something Ohtani would need to see before signing with a team that just had a losing record.

There are more reasons, but I’ve talked enough. Yoshinobu Yamamoto was not a name you were thinking about this time last year; now he’s the most important person in the Giants quest to accelerate their rebuild.