The St. Louis Cardinals still need a front-line starter (or two), and as each day passes by, the potential of Yoshinobu Yamamoto signing with the Cardinals seems more and more realistic. Let's start with the recent news surrounding Yamamoto and then dive deeper into why I am growing in my confidence in the Cardinals pulling off this historic move.
Joel Wolfe, Yoshinobu Yamamoto's agent, gave comments to Japanese media as Yamamoto's posting window has opened that seem to give cadence to the Cardinals having a real shot at signing the Orix Buffaloes superstar.
In the story, which was originally written in Japanese so the English translation is not perfect, Wolfe said two different things that point to the Cardinals having even more of a chance than the national media has been giving them credit for:
1. Yamamoto would prefer to play with other Japanese players when choosing his new club.
2. Yamamoto does not have a preference to play on the coast.
Why does any of that matter? Let's start with the former - Lars Nootbaar is best friends with Yamamoto, with their mothers speaking daily and the pair have spent time recently golfing together as they enjoy the offseason. While there are other teams interested in Yamamoto's services that have a player from Japan on their roster, Nootbaar likely has the strongest connection to Yamamoto of them all.
The second comment, regarding Yamamoto's openness to play somewhere other than the cost, is the one that will end up mattering the most in these negotiations. Nootbaar's friendship with Yamamoto can only help their chances, but there's actually a lot more meaningful work that has been done by the Cardinals to position themselves in this sweepstakes.
Cardinals' front office assistant, Matt Slater, has a working relationship with the Orix Buffaloes and has helped develop strong relationships in Japan for the Cardinals. They also hired a full-time scout to survey the NPB, who also has a history of helping close deals with Japanese players. Executives around the game believe this gives the Cardinals a seat at the table in a way they haven't had historically.
Let's circle back again to Yamamoto's agent, Joel Wolfe. Wolfe's relationship with the Cardinals runs deep and plays a huge role in how a potential deal could happen as well. Wolfe played in the Cardinals' minor league system in 1996 and has developed a strong relationship with John Mozeliak over the years. Not only does he represent Lars Nootbaar and Nolan Arenado as their agent (and has Arenado's brother now working for him as well), but he also represents Giancarlo Stanton. Why does that matter?
On a recent episode of the Noot News Podcast that I co-host, I talked to Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat, and he detailed how Wolfe was a strong advocate for St. Louis during the Stanton trade talks. If you remember, Stanton vetoed trades to both the Cardinals and Giants since he was set on going to the Yankees, but it was Wolfe who convinced Stanton to meet with the Cardinals, and strongly encouraged him to hear them out as they would be a great destination for him. You can check out more of that conversation below.
The fact that Wolfe went out of his way to have his client consider St. Louis as a destination matters. Stanton wanted New York, and it was his job as Stanton's agent to get him where he wanted to go. New York is the biggest market in America, so landing there would be a huge opportunity for Wolfe as Stanton's agent to market him even further. But Wolfe sees value in the Cardinals organization, which is a huge advantage for St. Louis in this process.
Let's not forget either the recent comments that Brian Cashman made about Giancarlo Stanton, and how Wolfe fired back letting Cashman know that both "domestic and foreign players alike" will need to take things like that into account when considering the New York market. The Yankees and Mets will still be major players in the Yamamoto sweepstakes, but I'm sure Wolfe won't be afraid to let Yamamoto know his opinions on Cashman or that market
If you've made it this far in the story and still think I'm crazy, I get it. I would not make the Cardinals the front runners in this sweepstakes, but there is very real reporting around the Cardinals' intentions to be serious players here. In my conversation with Jones, he mentioned that there are people within the Cardinals front office who are "screaming" for Yamamoto to be their guy. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (subscription required) has been detailing the Cardinals' connections to Yamamoto for some time now.
The Cardinals have done all of the legwork they possibly could have done to put themselves in this position, plus lucking into having the "international superstar" that is Lars Nootbaar in their clubhouse. Now all they have to do is make the best possible offer they can, and if needed, exceed that to put the ball in Yamamoto's court. If they match the best offer on the market or present the single best contract to Yamamoto and he decides to go elsewhere, then no one can blame them for not closing the deal. At the end of the day, St. Louis will never be Los Angeles, New York, or any of these coastal cities if a player wants to be there. But, what St. Louis has done to build relationships in Japan may give them other advantages, and now it's just about making the best offer possible.
The other fact that St. Louis must consider, and something I'll be getting into more in an upcoming story on the site, is how the rest of the market is unfolding. St. Louis cannot afford to come up empty-handed when it comes to one of the top talents on the market. If Yamamoto is still mulling over offers, and guys like Blake Snell are ready to sign or trades for pitchers like Tyler Glasnow, Dylan Cease, or Logan Gilbert are on the table, they may have to pivot and take one of those opportunities. While I want Yamamoto badly just like most others, I also understand the Cardinals have no room for error here.
While signing Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson may have been some of the most underwhelming moves possible, in many ways, it has increased the likelihood they choose to make an aggressive run at a guy like Yamamoto (or any one of the top guys still available through free agency or trade). They have the certainty of innings now with Lynn, Gibson, and Miles Mikolas, and now they have to swing big with their other starting pitching addition (and I'm still holding out hope for two potentially).
I can't put odds on this deal happening, as frankly, nobody knows right now. I can see Yamamoto signing with the Cardinals, Mets, Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, Cubs, or even some mystery team. His market is wide due to his age and incredible stuff, so time will tell where he decides to land.
The thing that I hope for the most is that St. Louis stays in the conversation until the very end, puts their absolute best foot forward, and makes it hard for Yamamoto to say no to being a Cardinal. Will they do that? I think so. But they have to prove it to all of us, so let's keep a close eye on their actions over the coming days and weeks.