Star closer Yuki Matsui looks to be interested in a potential move to Major League Baseball, as a Yahoo Japan report (Japanese language link) indicates that Matsui has exercised his international free agent rights, as well as his rights to freely negotiate with other Nippon Professional Baseball clubs.
Matsui doesn’t turn 28 until later this month, but he has already accumulated 10 seasons with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. As a result, the left-hander is a full free agent, and can be signed by MLB teams without an additional posting fee to the Eagles. His age and experience also make him exempt from MLB’s international bonus pool structure.
It isn’t necessarily a sure thing that Matsui is headed to North America, as the Eagles are reportedly set to offer him a four-year contract worth $1.6 billion yen (roughly $10.7MM in USD) to remain in the fold. However, Matsui has hired WME’s Bryan Minniti as an agent, which could hint that the southpaw is more interested in seeing what Major League teams have to offer. Minniti has recently moved into the representation arena after a long front office career that included stints as an assistant GM with the Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Nationals.
At least nine Major League clubs have already scouted Matsui, including the Padres, Red Sox, Cubs, and Yankees. It isn’t surprising that there is significant interest in a pitcher who is hitting the market at such a relatively young age, and who has already amassed such an impressive resume in Nippon Professional Baseball and on the international stage. Matsui was a member of Japan’s championship team at the 2023 World Baseball Classic, though he only made one appearance during the tournament, throwing a scoreless inning.
Over 501 career games with the Eagles, Matsui has a 2.40 ERA and 236 saves, and the five-time NPB All-Star is the youngest player in league history to reach the 200-save threshold. He has worked out of the bullpen for almost his entire career, except for his 2014 rookie season and during a brief return to rotation work during the pandemic-affected 2020 NPB season. Matsui’s usage has also been somewhat impacted by the Eagles’ struggles, as the team has mostly posted mostly losing records during the southpaw’s tenure. With a 10.9% walk rate over his career in Japan, control has occasionally been an issue for Matsui, though his 31.85% strikeout rate indicates that his ability to miss bats isn’t in question.
Readers of MLBTR’s NPB Players To Watch feature are quite familiar with Matsui’s name, as Dai Takegami Podziewski had frequently highlighted the closer throughout the 2023 season. Matsui had a dominant 1.57 ERA over 57 1/3 innings for the Eagles this season, and Dai noted that Matsui made the splitter a much heavier part of his pitching arsenal, perhaps as a bit of a showcase for MLB evaluators.
However, Matsui’s small role in the WBC could have been due to reported difficulty he had throwing the WBC ball, which was larger than the standard ball used in NPB play and closer to the type of baseball used in the majors. More broadly, Matsui has a relatively small frame (5’8″ and 167 pounds), so scouts may have concerns over how he might hold up over the long term, even if he has been pretty durable during his time with the Eagles.
This winter’s market for left-handed relievers has some interesting names, headlined by ace closer Josh Hader. Matsui immediately becomes an intriguing new name in this group, as at least a candidate for high-leverage innings if perhaps not strictly a saves specialist.