Japan's most intriguing starter isn't Japanese... or a starter

Could Yariel Rodriguez find himself in St. Louis after turning heads in the WBC?
World Baseball Classic Quarterfinals: Australia v Cuba
World Baseball Classic Quarterfinals: Australia v Cuba / Gene Wang/GettyImages
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The 2023 World Baseball Classic gave fans of MLB a preview of the International talent that will be coming to the States in the upcoming years. With Japan’s undefeated title run, many NPB stars such as Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Shugo Maki, Munetaka Murakami, and Roki Sasaki stole the show. However, one NPB player entering the free agent market this offseason went largely under the radar, and he’s not even Japanese. With the Cardinals seeking starting pitching, could he land a deal in St. Louis?

At 1 a.m. Eastern time on March 8, Cuba and the Netherlands played the first game of the tournament group stage in Taichung. Starting for Cuba was 26-year-old Yariel Rodriguez, a longtime reliever in NPB. Allowing just 1 earned run on 3 hits and 1 walk through 4 innings pitched, Rodriguez impressed scouts with his electric fastball topping out at 100 mph and a wicked slider. His next outing, in Cuba’s quarterfinal victory over Australia, was a bit rockier. Still, he limited the damage to one run in 3.1 innings pitched despite allowing 2 hits and walking 5. While Rodriguez would not pitch again, as Cuba would be eliminated by Team USA in the semifinal round, it was enough for Rodriguez to leave the Chunichi Dragons hoping to pursue a contract in MLB.

Aside from the World Baseball Classic, Rodriguez did not pitch professionally in 2023, and he never started a game in NPB. However, his 2022 NPB season, one in which he won the Central League Most Valuable Setup Pitcher award, was extremely impressive. In 56 relief appearances, he tossed 54.2 innings to a 1.15 ERA. Just like the WBC, walks were an issue for him with a 3.0 BB/9 (career 4.0 BB/9 in NPB), but his 9.9 K/9 and elite run prevention make up for that. In fact, he did not allow a single home run during this 2022 run.

Yes, the Cardinals are in need of proven solutions in the rotation, but Yariel Rodriguez could serve as a depth option with significant upside. While the Jordan Hicks starting experiment went rather poorly for the Cards in 2022, Hicks showed the ability to throw significantly more innings and was a reliable bullpen option for the Cardinals in the first half of 2023. Even if Rodriguez doesn't pan out as a starter, he is a proven relief talent. After Hicks was traded, the bullpen core of Helsley, Gallegos, and Romero unable to give such length and consistency. Like Hicks, he could become a much-needed stabilizing force in the Cardinals bullpen, notching 2-inning saves and pitching several consecutive days.

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Rodriguez has already been linked to the Pirates, Giants, Mets, and many other teams so competition for the Cardinals to land him will be quite steep. Even though the Cardinals haven't been directly linked to him yet, they will have a chance to scout him soon. Rodriguez is scheduled to appear in a showcase event on October 25 in the Dominican Republic with representatives from all 30 teams in attendance. If they manage to land him they may have a high-velocity weapon in their pitching staff for years to come.