NASHVILLE — What was true at the start of the winter meetings remained true as they wrapped up Wednesday afternoon: The flashiest part of the Mets’ offseason — the headline-grabbing, enthusiasm-inspiring, ticket-selling moves — is yet to come.
Their great hope remains Japanese star righthander Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Mets owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns went to Japan last week, Stearns said, to meet with Yamamoto, who is in line to receive the largest contract of any international free agent ever, likely well over $200 million.
Just about every other big-market team, including the Yankees, have been hot for Yamamoto, too. So the Mets are far from a lock to sign him, despite their intercontinental wooing.
“Clearly, when you're in the middle of a big free-agent pursuit, every club's gonna meet with him,” Stearns said. “And so this likely shouldn’t be shocking news. But I understand that when stuff like this gets out, it's newsworthy, so yes, we met with him and it was a good meeting.
“I try not to look at it as selling and I try to look at it as providing information about who we are as an organization and what we want to do and what we want to become. This is a big decision for any free agent, where to sign. And they deserve to have all the information. They deserve to make the most informed decision and the right decision for them and their family. And so that's the approach I take when I talk to any player about joining us. I try to be as transparent as possible about who we are, why we think it's the right opportunity for that particular person and answer their questions.”
Stearns joked that it was a “long trip, short stay.” Asked if Kodai Senga, whom the Mets signed out of Japan last offseason, was present, he declined to say. But Stearns did offer that Senga has “made it clear he’d be very supportive of having Yamamoto on our team.”
Yamamoto is expected to return to the United States during the weekend, if he hasn't already, to continue discussions with clubs. The Mets don’t know if he’ll want to see them again; Stearns said he didn’t know what sort of timeline Yamamoto is working on.
He is willing to be patient. In 2023, Yamamoto had a 1.21 ERA and 0.88 WHIP, striking out six batters for every one he walked. For his excellence, Yamamoto won a third consecutive Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
Given his talent, young age for a free agent (25) and widespread interest, Yamamoto easily will top the $155 million for seven years that Masahiro Tanaka got from the Yankees a decade ago. That is the richest deal for a Japanese player ahead of his American debut.
The team that signs Yamamoto also would pay tens of millions of dollars in a posting fee to his Japanese team, the Orix Buffaloes of Nippon Professional Baseball.
“He’s an elite — potentially an elite — front-end starter, and he’s proven that at a high level,” Stearns said. “That’s why there are a lot of teams in the industry who like him.”
The Mets have only Senga, Jose Quintana and Luis Severino locked into their 2024 rotation. If they don’t sign Yamamoto, it’s not clear how interested they would be in other top free-agent pitchers such as Blake Snell, who just won his second Cy Young, and Jordan Montgomery.
“Jordan Montgomery, he’s 30 years old but has less innings on his arm than a certain Japanese pitcher who is 25,” said Scott Boras, agent for Montgomery and Snell.
Stearns has been careful to note that the Mets don’t need to add a frontline starting pitcher. But Yamamoto clearly is Plan A.
“When you're pursuing someone who is a very highly sought after free agent, that’s going to get a lot of money, you have to strategize around that,” Stearns said. “If we get him, that probably leads us down one path in the offseason. If we don’t get him, we'll adjust and go down alternate paths.”
The Mets’ moves Wednesday included announcing a one-year split contract with righthanded reliever Michael Tonkin. He’d receive $1 million if he lasts the season in the majors. Last year, he had a 4.28 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with Atlanta, filling a multi-inning role that Stearns considers valuable.
“As we talk about filling out our roster and some of these positions on the roster, that can go a little underappreciated,” he said. “Having that person in your bullpen who can pitch multiple innings, who has a resilient arm, who understands that role is important. It's one of the ways to insulate yourself throughout your pitching staff.”
They also plucked reliever Justin Slater from the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft and immediately traded him to the Red Sox for cash considerations and minor-league lefthander Ryan Ammons.
The rest will have to wait.
“Clearly, we haven't gotten anything of significance over the finish line,” Stearns said. “But we're working on it.”