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Breaking down expected bidding war between Yankees and Mets for Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Eric Espada/Getty Images North America/TNS

NEW YORK — The clock has started to tick on Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

The Orix Buffaloes of the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization posted Yamamoto on Monday, and a 45-day negotiating window opened the following morning. The Mets and Yankees are expected to be in the mix for him as owners Hal Steinbrenner and Steve Cohen gear up for their first true bidding war.

The accolades are numerous for the 25-year-old Yamamoto. He’s led the league in ERA three times, thrown two no-hitters, won three straight Sawamura Awards — the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award — and the last two Pacific League Most Valuable Player Awards.

Last season, he went 16-6, with a 1.21 ERA in 23 starts. He allowed only two home runs the entire season. Despite his size (5-10, 175), talent evaluators see Yamamoto as an ace with a mid-to-high-90s fastball and an array of spinning breaking pitches.

The size might be a concern, but his age and his pure stuff make up for it. Yamamoto could command a contract upwards of $200 million.

He’s the best pitcher to leave Japan since Masahiro Tanaka. Does that mean Yamamoto is destined for Pinstripes? The Mets had success with Japanese right-hander Kodai Senga last season. Could that make Queens a more attractive destination for him?

When it comes to playing in New York, there may not be a glaring advantage between the teams, even if the Yankees are under the microscope a bit more. If Yamamoto wants to play here, it may just come down to which team offers more money.

With that in mind, here is how the New York teams are positioned ahead of Yamamoto’s Jan. 4 signing deadline.

State of the Yankees' rotation

Gerrit Cole won his first Cy Young Award, but injuries and poor performances otherwise ruined the Yankees’ rotation in 2023. Carlos Rodón — last year’s pricey offseason addition — recorded a 6.85 ERA in only 14 starts. Nestor Cortes and Luis Severino didn’t pitch particularly well when healthy either, and Frankie Montas didn’t appear until the last weekend of the season. Along the way, young starters like Clarke Schmidt and Michael King emerged, but the Yankees’ rotation was mostly a mess in 2023.

Severino and Montas are now free agents, meaning Cole, Rodón, Cortes, Schmidt and King would likely make up the Yankees’ rotation if the season began today. There’s plenty of talent in that group, but the Yankees would be banking on bounce-back, healthy seasons from Rodón and Cortes. Schmidt also blew past his career high for innings pitched in 2023, while next season would be King’s first as a full-time starter in the majors. If nothing else, the Yankees need depth, which could open the door for a Montas reunion. But if the team were to sign Yamamoto, it could trade Schmidt, King or even Cortes for a bat.

State of the Mets' rotation

Pitching is a priority for the Mets this winter, with the rotation currently consisting of Senga, José Quintana, Joey Lucchesi, Tylor Megill and José Butto. David Peterson will start the season on the injured list while rehabbing from hip surgery. Lucchesi, Megill and Butto showed promise in September, but none of them have shown that they can pitch consistently enough to stay in the rotation.

It’s often said that teams can never have enough starting pitching. President of baseball operations David Stearns seems to agree with that sentiment. The Mets are looking to add another five starters at various levels.

Why the Yankees might be a fit

With Cole and others around, Yamamoto could slide into the middle or back of the Yankees’ rotation, where he would feel less immediate pressure to pitch like an ace as he adjusts to throwing on a five-day cycle. The Yankees took a similar approach with Tanaka during his first MLB season, making him the No. 4 starter out of spring training.

There is a strong track record of Japanese players finding success in the Bronx, including Tanaka and Hideki Matsui. They can sell that to Yamamoto.

Then again, the Mets currently employ Senga, who came in second in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.

Why the Mets might be a fit

The Mets helped Senga adjust by keeping him on a schedule that had him pitching every sixth or even every seventh day throughout most of the season. Former general manager Billy Eppler felt that keeping him on a schedule more similar to the one he was used to in Japan would help ease the transition during the first year of a five-year contract and that it would keep him off the injured list. Senga wasn’t always a big fan of the system, but he did appreciate that the Mets had his best interests in mind.

It was hard to argue with the results: Senga went 12-7 with a 2.98 ERA and stayed healthy enough to make 29 starts. The Mets still think they can make a six-man rotation work with different personnel. This could be a selling point for Yamamoto as he adjusts to playing in North America.

It’s also worth noting that Senga and Yamamoto have the same agent, Joel Wolfe of Wasserman.

If not Yamamoto for the Yankees, then who?

General manager Brian Cashman said he’s always looking for pitching. He’s also looking to add two outfielders and some left-handed hitting to his lineup. One of the outfielders has to be capable in center field with Jasson Domínguez sidelined, but that person doesn’t necessarily have to be just a stopgap for the young phenom. The other outfielder would slot into left after that position became a defensive and offensive black hole for the Yankees in 2023.

The Yankees have been linked to a few heavy hitters who meet these requirements, including Cody Bellinger, a free agent, and Juan Soto, who could be traded by the pitching-needy Padres. Kevin Kiermaier could also be a stopgap type in center.

Third base is also a position the Yankees could shore up, but it remains to be seen how much money they’re willing to spend. The Yankees could decide to allocate resources to other areas on the field.

If not Yamamoto for the Mets, then who?

If the Mets don’t spend big on Yamamoto, they could go for one of the aces like Blake Snell. Under Cohen and Eppler, the game plan has been to have two aces up front. They could pivot by trading for Corbin Burnes. Stearns has an obvious familiarity with him having drafted and developed the right-hander in Milwaukee. However, that would require giving up a prospects, which the Mets don’t seem inclined to do.

Of course, last season the Mets went for Senga and one of the aces, signing Justin Verlander at the winter meetings. They may end up going the same route with Yamamoto and an ace-type free agent, though Stearns has not committed to that, saying rotations can be built differently.

The Mets will also look to supplement the outfield and bring in more power at DH, but the big money will be allocated to starting and relief pitching.