Just after the close of the 2019 Winter Meeting in San Diego, the Rays made a splash in international free agency. They were rumored to be interested in two intriguing Japanese outfielders in Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Shogo Akiyama. The former is regarded as a bat-first corner outfielder and the latter, Akiyama, is older but more known for his glove. The Rays opted for Tsutsugo, who is entering his age 28 season after his Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball debut at the age of 23.
Tsutsugo has been a consistent left-handed slugger in Japan for the better part of four seasons, getting looks defensively at third base, first base, but mostly in left field. The contract is for a reasonable 2 years and $12 million. On top of that, Tampa will have to pay a posting fee of $2.4 million to his former team.
Tsutsugo was appealing to Tampa due to his advanced hitting metrics: hard-hit percentage, launch angle, and walk percentage. These helped earn him an average slash line over the last 4 years of .293/.402./.574 with 139 home runs. However, last year he saw his strikeout rate increase by 5%, which could be an indicator of the degree of difficulty his transition to the majors could be.
The Rays currently have 2 left-handed starting outfielders penciled in for everyday duty with Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows. Meanwhile, the newly acquired Hunter Renfroe from the Tommy Pham trade will certainly be slotted for a major role. Of course, they could rotate the four of them between the outfield and the DH role. Tsutsugo also has the ability to play third, where Yandy Diaz, Joey Wendle, and Daniel Robertson have experience. His versatility at first base can spell Ji-man Choi and Nate Lowe, albeit they all bat from the left side.
Tsutsugo adds to the left-handed hitting depth the Rays have accumulated. Manager Kevin Cash could certainly go lefty-heavy with Meadows, Kiermaier, B. Lowe, N. Lowe, Wendle, Michael Perez, Choi, Tsutsugo, and even offseason waiver pick up Brian O’Grady. There will be no shortage of options here for Cash.
This move certainly prioritizes offense over defense for the Rays, as they are trying to fill the void created by departures from last year’s key offensive members: Travis d’Arnaud, Tommy Pham, Avisail Garcia, and Matt Duffy. Erik Neander, head of baseball ops for Tampa Bay, has expressed interest in acquiring a right-handed outfield bat and adding a catcher to compete with Mike Zunino and Michael Perez. These two were the tandem Tampa was relying on to start the 2019 season, but after injuries and inconsistent play, neither made much of an impression.
For now, this looks to be a solid move by the Rays who are always trying to make smart but impactful decisions with the roster given their limited financial flexibility. The versatility of every player on this roster will be tested so as to ensure enough at-bats for all the contributors.
Don’t expect this move to be the finishing touch to the offseason. The Rays have been linked to DH Edwin Encarnacion this past week, with rumors saying the Rays are willing to make it a two-year deal to bring Edwing down south. Sticking with the need for right-handed thump, the Rays are still seeking outfield help even after the Tsutsugo signing. There are rumors that former Ray Steven Souza Jr. has expressed interest in returning via texts to his former clubhouse pals. Other additions that remain to be seen are adding another catcher for camp competition and a bullpen acquisition or two in the form of a low profile trade or taking a flyer on a veteran free agent.
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