Major League Baseball
Yankees-Mets arms race for Yoshinobu Yamamoto will be first of many
Major League Baseball

Yankees-Mets arms race for Yoshinobu Yamamoto will be first of many

Published Dec. 13, 2023 5:12 p.m. ET

A moment like this is what we all expected when Steve Cohen bought the New York Mets three years ago. Unlike the penny-pinching Wilpon ownership, the Cohen regime actually specializes in big-game hunting. It was only a few years ago these billionaire-backed Mets became capable of fighting with the New York Yankees for the best players in baseball. So, it was only a matter of time before the New York rivals clashed for a top free agent. That moment has finally arrived. 

Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto is in the process of deciding where to launch his Major League Baseball career. His decision could very well come down to the Mets and Yankees. Both clubs badly need starting pitching. The former is expected to offer the most amount of money. The latter is leaning on its full-court press of the flamethrowing right-hander, a publicized longtime interest in landing one of the best pitchers in the world. 

"We've scouted him extensively," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said at last week's winter meetings. "And think he's going to be a really successful pitcher anywhere he pitches on the planet."

It's out of the ordinary for the Yankees and Mets to clash over a top free agent like this. This is certainly the first time in the Cohen era that both teams are in a bidding war for the same player. But it's also the first time in almost two decades the crosstown rivals are involved as potential landing spots for a marketable star. 


The most recent New York battle of note took place in 2005, when Carlos Beltrán chose the Mets over the Yankees. Just a few weeks ago, Beltrán revealed that he had a face-to-face meeting with then-Yankees owner George Steinbrenner before signing with the Mets. But the Yankees at the time were dealing with payroll issues and couldn't guarantee Beltrán the security he was seeking. The Mets had already offered Beltrán a seven-year pact, so he crossed over the East River and took his talent to Queens.

A different tussle of sorts took place in the Big Apple a few years earlier. Álex Rodríguez, who endured perhaps baseball's most-hyped free agency until Shohei Ohtani's this winter, has said he regrets not signing with the Mets before he went to the Texas Rangers in 2001. The Mets would later say they had no chance of landing A-Rod when he was traded to the Yankees in 2004. Ultimately, he retired in the pinstripes in 2016. 

In the 2010s, the Mets were significantly far-removed from the Yankees' spending after the Wilpons' involvement with Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. The Mets took a step back after the Madoff scandal and stopped spending like a big-market team. 

Hal Steinbrenner, too, has been more cautious with his spending in recent years. The Yankees owner has played it safer with the team payroll than his father did and has appeared hesitant to exceed the luxury tax threshold. Cashman even acknowledged at last week's winter meetings that the Yankees are not operating in the same realm as the Mets.

"I don't know if anybody can compete with Steve Cohen," Cashman said. "He's obviously a titan of industry. He's had a lot of success and built an empire."

All of which brings us back to the present moment. 

Cohen has heavily invested in his Mets and wants to put together a championship team sooner rather than later. When he bought the franchise in 2020, Cohen said his expectation was to win a World Series in 3-5 years. Though Cohen has recently joked that perhaps his own timeline was a bit unrealistic, the richest owner in baseball is still eager to put a competitive product on the field and reach the playoffs in 2024. Cohen's lofty efforts, though commendable, have so far failed. He flexed his financial might when he signed Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to the highest-paid contracts on an annual basis in baseball history. But the Mets never really got going last year, prompting the front office to trade away both Scherzer and Verlander by the trade deadline. 

The Mets now have a dearth of starting pitchers and need an ace like Yamamoto to stabilize their rotation. The only surefire arms in their starting five are Kodai Senga, Jose Quintana and Luis Severino. If there was ever a time to go big and offer an eye-popping, irresistible deal for a talented top-of-the-rotation pitcher, it's now. Of course, both the Mets and Yankees agree with that sentiment.

It's a good thing, then, that Yamamoto's competitive drive appears ready-made for New York's big-market environment.

The 25-year-old right-hander just won the Sawamura award (the Nippon Professional Baseball's equivalent of the Cy Young award) for a third straight season. He owned a 1.82 ERA and 0.935 WHIP in seven seasons with the Orix Buffaloes, including a 1.21 ERA this past season. Yamamoto joined Ichiro Suzuki and Hisashi Yamada when he became just the third player in NPB history to win MVP in three consecutive seasons. Across both the NPB and MLB, Yamamoto is the only pitcher to win the Triple Crown — league leader in wins, strikeouts and ERA — in three straight seasons, which he achieved from 2021 to 2023. Oh, and he was also a gold medalist for Japan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

His makeup, age, statistics and profile are a big-market team's dream. So, it's no wonder clubs like the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Red Sox and Giants are being reported as the finalists for Yamamoto's services. A contract for the star talent could wind up approaching — or surpassing — $300 million. Yamamoto is also interested in playing on a big stage, per multiple reports.

Dodgers or Yankees: Who will land Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

No stage, of course, is bigger than New York. On that end, both the Mets and Yankees have added personal touches to their respective pursuits for Yamamoto. Cohen and David Stearns, new Mets president of baseball operations, traveled to Japan this month and met Yamamoto and his family. The Yankees contingent, including Cashman and Steinbrenner, traveled to Los Angeles this week and connected with Yamamoto and his representatives on the West Coast. Both teams appear all-in for the Japanese right-hander, making for an electric New York bidding war. 

Yamamoto is reportedly in the final phase of his decision-making process. Per Japan's posting system, he has until Jan. 4 to sign with an MLB team, but his decision could come sooner. 

The Yankees need Yamamoto to put their 2024 crusade over the top. With Yamamoto, the Juan Soto-led Yankees would become one of the American League favorites to reach the World Series. The Mets need Yamamoto to build a strong foundation in the rotation for years to come, which would nicely complement core players Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and Edwin Díaz

This is just the first clash of what could be many between the Cohen-Steinbrenner regimes. Another battle is expected next winter, when Soto is set to enter free agency and command a deal only big-market teams could entertain. These are the moments we've all been waiting for. The New York tug-of-war has officially arrived. 

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.


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