In the shadows of Japanese stars Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga is another pitcher who could be hoping to get a chance overseas. According to a Japanese article on yahoo.com, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles closer Yuki Matsui of Nippon Professional Baseball exercised his international free agent rights and is eligible to sign with any MLB team.
The Cardinals are reportedly interested in signing the left-handed Matsui, who has pitched for Rakuten since 2014 and racked up 236 career saves and pitched to a 2.40 ERA. In 2023, the 27-year-old had a 1.57 ERA and a career-high 39 saves. After signings of pitchers from Asia who paid dividends, such as Seunghwan Oh and Kwang-Hyun Kim, there is little surprise that the Cardinals have looked into that market again.
Redbird Rants contributor Andrew Wang had a positive takeaway of the possibility of Matsui taking the mound in St. Louis in his article reporting the Cardinals' intrigue. But after Matsui pitched sparingly in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, there was a report that should raise alarm bells for the Cardinals.
According to MLB Trade Rumors, Matsui had difficulty gripping the baseball in the WBC. Baseballs in NPB are about half a centimeter smaller than those in the major leagues, and their seams are lower. For a pitcher like Matsui, who employs a split-finger fastball heavily in his arsenal, his trouble adapting to a larger ball is extremely concerning given the spread-out finger grip the splitter requires.
Matsui's size is another concern. At five feet, eight inches tall, he is extremely small by major league pitchers' standards. Beyond the possible issues with the ball, there will likely be questions about whether he can handle the rigors of a full major league season, which are 19 games longer than those in Japan.
These red flags, along with the overall quality of major league competition being above that of NPB, could make a successful transition to the major leagues an uphill climb for Matsui. He will tempt clubs because of his relatively young age and long record of success, but if the Cardinals are looking in Japan for an arm, they should go for one of the pitchers with higher upside and take a hard pass on Matsui.