DECEMBER 16: Tampa Bay has announced the signing. Interestingly, it characterizes him as a third baseman and outfielder, which obviously suggests that Tsutsugo will be in the mix at the hot corner.
DECEMBER 13: The Rays are finalizing a two-year contract with Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports (via Twitter). The contract being discussed would guarantee the first baseman/outfielder about $12MM total, per Topkin. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman indicates that a deal has been agreed upon (Twitter links).
Because he was posted by the Yokohama DeNA BayStars and is not a pure free agent, Tsutsugo would require the Rays to pay a posting/release fee to his former team. Under the current iteration of that system, a fee equal to 20 percent of a player’s first $25MM in guarantees is owed to his former team. That’d be $2.4MM on a $12MM contract, meaning a deal of this type for Tsutsugo would cost the Rays a total of about $14.4MM.
Tsutsugo, who turned 28 on Nov. 26, has been one of Japan’s most prominent sluggers for the past four seasons, hitting a combined .293/.402/.574 with 139 home runs, 116 doubles, five triples, a 15.1 percent walk rate and a 20.4 percent strikeout rate. His best season came back in 2016, when he launched a career-high 44 home runs and slashed .322/.430/.680. It’s worth noting that Tsutsugo’s 2019 season was his weakest of the past four (.272/.388/.511, 29 home runs) and saw his strikeout rate climb to 25.3 percent.
Listed at 6’0″ and 209 pounds, the left-handed-hitting Tsutsugo has played some third base in his career but primarily has been deployed as a left fielder and first baseman. He’ll presumably become an option at first base and DH with Tampa Bay, although the Rays’ fluid rotation of defensive players could afford the slugger some reps in the corners as well, particularly if the team wants to give newly acquired Hunter Renfroe a day off against a tough right-handed opponent. Renfroe hit just .208/.274/.459 against righties in 2019. On the surface, the signing of Tsutsugo appears to be bad news for first base prospect Nate Lowe, who also hits from the left side of the dish but never got a full look in 2019 despite huge numbers in Triple-A and a solid showing in 169 MLB plate appearances.
There’s little doubting Tsutsugo’s power, but his glovework is a much more considerable question. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen wrote a bit more than a month ago that Tsutsugo is a potential everyday player but one with “no margin for error because of defensive limitations” even at first base. Sports Info Solutions’ Will Hoefer wrote in September that Tsutsugo has a plus throwing arm and could be “hidden” in an outfield corner with some proper positioning work. Those in the industry who’ve spoken to MLBTR about Tsutsugo offered similar concerns about his defensive home but praised his power as a legitimate tool.
Tsutsugo will now be added to an ever-changing cast of characters in a Tampa Bay lineup that has added Renfroe but subtracted Tommy Pham (Renfroe trade), Avisail Garcia (free agency) and Jesus Aguilar (waivers) to this point in the offseason. The signing of Tsutsugo could well put an end to any potential for a fit with free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who’d previously been a rumored target. Tsutsugo was also connected to the Tigers, Blue Jays, White Sox and Twins prior to today’s agreement with the Rays.
From a payroll vantage point, the deal should be a manageable one for the perennially low-spending Rays, who shed about $7.7MM in swapping out Pham for Renfroe and placing Aguilar on waivers. An even distribution of Tsutsugo’s $12MM guarantee would put the team’s Opening Day payroll at about $70.7MM (not including the posting fee), which would check in a bit south of last season’s $76MM Opening Day mark. The Rays have never opened the season with a payroll greater than 2014’s $77MM total.