The Padres have signed left-hander Yuki Matsui to a five-year contract, the club has announced. Matsui and the Padres were reportedly close to a deal earlier this week. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that Matsui will receive $28MM guaranteed over the life of the contract, which includes opt-outs after the third and fourth seasons of the deal as well as an injury clause that can convert the fifth year of the contract into a club option worth $7MM if Matsui suffers a “serious” elbow injury during the life of the contract.
The deal represents San Diego’s first significant buy-side move of the offseason, and their first major move since trading star slugger Juan Soto and center fielder Trent Grisham to the Yankees earlier this month for a five-player package headlined by right-handers Michael King and Drew Thorpe. It’s a somewhat unusual deal for a reliever; right-hander Robert Suarez’s agreement with the Padres and the record-breaking deal between star closer Edwin Diaz and the Mets, both of which were signed last offseason, are the only contracts for free agent relievers to surpass five years.
Matsui landed at #43 on MLBTR’s annual Top 50 MLB free agents list, where we projected him for a two-year, $16MM deal. Matsui nearly doubled that guarantee, though the average annual value of his deal comes in at just $5.6MM, well below the $8MM MLBTR projected him for over a two-year apct. Despite the unusual length of the deal, the gamble is an understandable one for the Padres to make. The deal covers Matsui’s age-28 through -32 seasons, with his first opt-out opportunity coming after Matsui’s age-30 campaign in 2026. The lowered AAV of the deal was surely particularly appealing to the Padres, who are reportedly hoping to stay under the luxury tax in 2024. Given those financial constraints, Matsui’s deal represents a more cost-effective alternative to reuniting with relief ace Josh Hader, who MLBTR projected for a whopping six-year, $110MM guarantee on the heels of a dominant season as San Diego’s closer.
While Matsui can’t be reasonably expected to match Hader’s incredible production last season (1.28 ERA and 33 saves in 56 1/3 innings), the lefty has put together an excellent career overseas in his own right. Matsui’s spent the past ten seasons pitching for Nippon Professional Baseball’s Tohuku Rakuten Golden Eagles. During his NPB career, Matsui has racked up 236 saves in 501 appearances while earning five All Star nods. In 659 2/3 innings of work during his career, Matsui sports a sterling 2.40 ERA with a 31.9% strikeout rate. He’s been even more impressive over the past three seasons, a combined 1.42 ERA and a 36.4% strikeout rate across 152 innings during that time.
Matsui was a frequent subject of MLBTR’s NPB Players to Watch series throughout the 2023 season, where Dai Takegami Podziewski discussed Matsui’s four-pitch mix that includes a 92-94 mph fastball that touches 96 along with a splitter, slider, and curveball while also noting that Matsui reportedly struggled to adjust to the MLB ball while participating in the World Baseball Classic last spring. Clearly, the Padres were more enticed by Matsui’s deep pitch mix and impressive velocity for a lefty who is listed at just 5’8” and 167 pounds than they were concerned by his struggles to adjust to the ball used in the majors earlier this year.
While the addition of Matsui shores up a Padres bullpen lacking in certainty, there’s plenty left for president of baseball operations A.J. Preller and his front office to do if they hope to return to contention in 2024. Another set-up arm to pair with Matsui and Suarez at the back of the bullpen would be helpful, and at least one more starting pitcher who can step into the void left by the departures of Blake Snell, Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha, and Nick Martinez this offseason alongside King appears to be all but necessary.
On the hitting side of things, the Padres have just two outfielders on their 40-man roster at the moment in Fernando Tatis Jr. and fourth outfielder Jose Azocar, meaning they’ll need to make multiple additions to the lineup to cover the two vacant outfield spots and DH, which lacks a clear starter following the deal that sent Matt Carpenter and his salary to Atlanta earlier in the month.
That’s a hefty shopping list for any club, but it’s especially daunting for a Padres club that projects for a $210MM luxury tax payroll per RosterResource. If the Padres are indeed intent on staying under the first tax threshold of $237MM in 2024, that gives them just under $27MM of payroll space left to work with this offseason as they look to fill the remaining holes in the lineup and pitching staff. While the addition of Matsui is a step in the right direction that didn’t eat into the club’s financial capabilities too excessively, the Padres clearly still have plenty of work to do before they’re ready to contend in an ever-improving NL West next year.