Intent on fortifying their bullpen for the 2018 season, the Cardinals have interest in Japanese closer Yoshihisa Hirano, reports Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Set to turn 34 years of age next March, Hirano has long been a dominant closer in Japan, amassing 143 saves with a 2.62 ERA, 9.4 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 through 271 1/3 innings from 2013-17. Hirano started his career in the Buffaloes’ rotation, and like many starters who struggle early in their career eventually found new life as a member of the Orix bullpen. Since shifting to a relief role full time in 2010, he owns a 2.32 ERA and a 564-to-123 K/BB ratio in 515 1/3 innings, although this season’s 7.5 K/9 mark was his lowest since becoming a full-time reliever.
Hirano easily exceeds the age and experience limitations to qualify as a professional under Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, meaning he won’t be subject to international bonus pools. He’s also spent 11 seasons pitching professionally in Japan (all with the Buffaloes), giving him the requisite service time in Nippon Professional Baseball to qualify as a free agent that is exempt from the posting system. In other words, Hirano is free to sign with any professional club on the planet for any amount this offseason.
The Cardinals are no stranger to dipping into the international market to bolster their relief corps, having done so two offseasons ago when signing right-hander Seung-hwan Oh. Certainly, their level of interest figures to be preliminary at this stage. The NPB season is still in progress over in Japan, and the Cardinals have no way of knowing exactly what type of contract Hirano will be seeking, nor do they know how he’ll fit in alongside the asking prices of the upcoming winter’s crop of free-agent relievers. Given his success in the Orix bullpen over the past several seasons, however, Hirano will be a name worth remembering as the offseason wears on and teams explore all possible avenues to deepen their pitching staffs.
Other teams figure to at least kick the tires on Hirano this offseason, as they’ve had no shortage of opportunities to scout the righty over his lengthy NPB career. C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer doesn’t explicitly state that the Reds have interest in Hirano, though he does note (Twitter link) that GM Dick Williams’ most recent trip to Japan was likely for the purposes of scouting more than just Shohei Otani, specifically listing Hirano as an example of another player that Williams could have been evaluating.