During a podcast interview with NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said that his club has been scouting and “continuing to do our work on” two of the offseason's biggest international targets — ace right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto of NPB's Orix Buffaloes, and star outfielder Jung Hoo Lee of the KBO League's Kiwoom Heroes.
At least 10 MLB teams are known to be scouting Yamamoto already, with the Giants joining a list that includes (and certainly isn't limited to) the Phillies, Mets, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rangers, Tigers, Yankees, and Red Sox. The appeal is obvious, as Yamamoto has a 1.82 ERA over his seven seasons and 897 innings with the Buffaloes, and he should have plenty of prime years left since he just turned 25 years old in August.
Zaidi described Yamamoto as “one of the top starting pitchers in the world,” praising the right-hander's “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. A lot of positives there, and he's been an impressive guy to watch.”
MLB Trade Rumors ranked Yamamoto third in our most recent power ranking of the 2023-24 free agent class, behind only Shohei Ohtani and Cody Bellinger. This makes Yamamoto in line to receive the largest deal of any full-time pitcher this winter, with Ohtani obviously a unique case due to his two-way abilities. The bidding for Yamamoto (and the posting fee to the Buffaloes) could put his total price tag close to $200MM, especially with so many big-payroll teams in the running.
The Giants' payroll was roughly $196MM in 2023 according to Roster Resource, so while still a healthy amount of salary outlay, San Francisco remained below the upper tier of spenders. However, it wasn't for lack of try to spend, as the Giants' attempts to sign Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa both didn't materialize, due to Judge re-signing with the Yankees and with the Correa signing seemingly all but finalized before the Giants backed out due to concerns over his physical.
With very little in the way of long-term payroll commitments and increased pressure to win after a pair of non-playoff seasons, the Giants figure to be aggressive this winter, which generally runs counter to Zaidi's more measured approach to roster construction during his five seasons as PBO. As Pavlovic notes, Zaidi has shied away from longer-term contracts to pitchers (apart from the club's extension with the homegrown Logan Webb).
During his end-of-season media conference just a few days ago, Zaidi said he wasn't planning on targeting pitching depth in general this winter, as he feels San Francisco already has plenty of veteran pitchers and younger arms coming up from the farm system. That said, Yamamoto is far more than a depth option, and his youth and obvious talent have seemingly made the Giants comfortable in exploring the possibility of what would be far and away the biggest contract (let alone a pitching contract) of Zaidi's tenure.
Lee doesn't have Yamamoto's high profile and he'll come at a significantly lower price tag, but Lee could very well land a healthy contract himself during an offseason that is generally short on premium free-agent position players. Like Yamamoto, Lee is also 25 years old, would be subject to a posting fee, and has impressed observers over seven seasons of international ball.
Lee has hit .340/.407/.491 over 3946 career plate appearances for the Heroes, with 65 homers and 244 doubles. His resume includes KBO League MVP honors in 2022, five KBO Gold Gloves for his defense (mostly in center field), and a standout performance for South Korea's team in the last World Baseball Classic.
The hitter-friendly nature of the KBO League can sometimes make it hard to fully evaluate a player's statistics, and Lee is also coming off an injury-shortened 2023 campaign due to a fractured ankle. However, Lee is expected to be healthy, and his skillset offers plenty of intrigue even beyond his batting potential. Since improving the defense is a stated goal for Zaidi this winter, adding Lee as San Francisco's new regular center fielder would allow for Mike Yastrzemski or Austin Slater to play in the corner outfield slots. Former top prospect Luis Matos projects as the Giants' 2024 center fielder for the moment, but with Lee on board, Matos could be eased into the big leagues in more of a part-time role.