Who Are the Top International MLB Free Agents Right Now?

At this point we have all heard about Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but there are plenty of other international free agents of note this offseason.

OSAKA, JAPAN - MARCH 09: Pitcher Shota Imanaga #21 of Japan throws in the bottom of 1st inning during the game one between Japan and Mexico at Kyocera Dome Osaka on March 9, 2019 in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

There has been a lot of discussion early this offseason about this free agent class and how it is weaker than in year’s past. While that seems to be the case overall, the crop of talent heading stateside from the international market is actually better than we have had in some time.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s arrival to MLB has been met with great excitement, as many believe he is the top free agent starting pitcher available in this class.

Beyond Yamamoto though, there are other free agents who have been, or soon will be, posted that are sure to garner plenty of interest in their own right. Let’s take a look into the top international free agents who will be available to teams this offseason.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP

2023 NPB Stats: 1.21 ERA,164.0 IP, 9.3 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9, 0.88 WHIP

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If there is one player from this piece that needs no introduction, it is Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

We have already written an article breaking down his arsenal, which we later made into this video that tells all one needs to know about Yamamoto and what he brings to the table through free agency.

Yamamoto has already been posted by the Orix Buffaloes and is expected to make a decision on where he will sign following next week’s Winter Meetings. This is the best international free agent by far, as one lucky team will sign a potential ace, who is just 25 years old.

Jung Hoo Lee, OF

2023 KBO Stats: 86 G, .318/.406/.455, 6 HR, 45 RBI, .860 OPS, 139 wRC+

While Jung Hoo Lee does not have quite the same fanfare as Yamamoto, he does stand out very prominently in what is otherwise a weak free agent class for position players.

Lee is 25 years old, having spent the last seven season playing in the KBO.

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Across his time spent in the KBO, Lee has managed to hit .340/.407/.491, with an .898 OPS. Not known for his power, Lee hit a career-high 23 home runs in the 2022 season, but has actually only eclipsed double digit home runs twice in his career.

What he lacks in power, Lee surely makes up for in contact. The left-handed hitter rarely ever strikes out and boasts incredible bat-to-ball skills. Whether his offensive profile will translate is still to be seen, but he has a very good chance.

Helping him when it comes to his free agency is the fact that Lee is also a very good outfielder, with the speed to hold his own in center and the arm strength to be used in right field. Having already won five Golden Gloves in the KBO, Lee will be seen as an above-average defensive outfielder who can help teams looking for a starting center fielder.

His ceiling is not quite clear yet, but the Lee has a very solid floor as a strong defensive outfielder who should be able to provide value offensively with his ability to consistently make contact.

Shota Imanaga, LHP

2023 NPB Stats: 2.80 ERA,148.0 IP, 10.6 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 1.05 WHIP

If not for Yamamoto, Shota Imanaga would probably be garnering way more headlines right now as the top international pitcher on the market. Instead he’s the second-best starting pitcher, but one that can still be of great value in a market that thirsts for quality starting pitching.

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Imanaga turned 30 years old in September and has pitched to a 2.96 ERA across well over 1,000 innings pitched in the NPB. The left-hander has already been posted by the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, and is sure to receive plenty of interest on the market this offseason.

Nicknamed the “Throwing Philosopher”, Imanaga first made a name for himself in the United States when he started for Japan in the World Baseball Classic Championship against Team U.S.A. last March.

The crafty lefty has a fastball that tops out at 96 MPH, which he pairs with an excellent changeup, as well as as slider and curveball. Imanaga doesn’t have the same frontline potential as Yamamoto, but many teams will be after him as a high-end No. 3 starter if everything breaks right.

Naoyuki Uwasawa, RHP

2023 NPB Stats: 2.96 ERA,170.0 IP, 6.6 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 1.14 WHIP

When it comes to coverage, Naoyuki Uwasawa trails far behind Yamamoto and even Imanaga right now, but he may be getting overlooked in this class.

Uwasawa might profile more as a back-end starter than those other guys, although a valuable one at that. Uwasawa does not have great strikeout stuff, but he has been very effective across his nine seasons in the NPB.

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Dating back to 2017, Uwasawa has kept his ERA below 3.50 in each season and has eclipsed 160 innings pitched in each of the last three years. At a time where teams have been paying eight figures to any dependable starting pitcher, Uwasawa should certainly find some real value on this market.

Yariel Rodriguez, RHP

2022 NPB Stats: 1.15 ERA, 54.2 IP, 9.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9, 0.92 WHIP

Yariel Rodriguez has long waited to pitch in the majors, as he left his team in the NPB last offseason in hopes of signing with a big league club. Since he was still technically under contract, Rodriguez was forced to sit out all of the 2023 season before finally being granted his free agency.

The 26-year-old made his a name for himself pitching for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic, where he actually made two starts to much success.

Across three seasons in the NPB, Rodriguez pitched to a 3.03 ERA and struck out nearly 10 batters per nine (9.7 K/9). In his last season pitched in 2022, Rodriguez was named the Central League Most Valuable Setup Pitcher after allowing just seven earned runs in 54 2/3 innings pitched for a 1.15 ERA.

In a market that doesn’t have a ton of set-up man available, Rodriguez should be considered among one of the best and will likely receive a very solid contract to establish himself in 2024.

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Yuki Matsui, LHP

2023 NPB Stats: 1.57 ERA, 57.1 IP, 11.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, 0.89 WHIP

Speaking of elite relievers, Yuki Matsui has the chance to be just that if he is posted as a free agent this offseason. While there were reports that Matsui would explore free agency about a month ago, there has not been much reported on the matter lately.

If Matsui does get posted, there will be plenty of teams lining up for his services, as he has thrived in a closing role dating all the way back to 2015 when he was just 19 years old. The left-hander has saved 236 games in the NPB, having eclipsed 30 saves on seven different occasions.

Sporting a paltry 2.40 ERA across 10 seasons spent in the NPB, Matsui should have no problem finding success pitching out of an MLB bullpen. He might not be asked to close games right away, but at 26 years old, there is every chance that he finds himself in that role at some point in the coming years.

Woo Suk Go, RHP

2023 KBO Stats: 3.68 ERA, 44.0 IP, 12.1 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9, 1.36 WHIP

Probably the least-known name of the players we have mentioned today, Woo Suk Go has been posted by his KBO club and is currently a free agent.

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The 25-year-old relief pitcher has some impressive seasons on his resume, including two years where he pitched to a sub 2.00 ERA in 2019 and 2022. The right-hander has posted K/9 rates in double digits in each of his last four seasons and has a career 3.18 ERA across seven seasons.

Since he has already been posted, there is a good chance that Go finds himself a guaranteed deal with a club where he can try translate his KBO success into an MLB career.