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Yoshi Tsutsugo DFA: Up Next For The Rays

Coming after less than half a season of playing time, the Yoshi Tsutsugo DFA raises a lot of questions for the rest of the Tampa Bay Rays 2021 season, making an already shaky corner infield situation worse. Whether Yoshi Tsutsugo sticks around in the minors to work through his issues at the plate or not, the Rays have an immediate issue to grapple with: filling the void at first base.

Yoshi Tsutsugo DFA: Tsutsugo’s Career

When Tsutsugo was designated for assignment on May 11, he was looking at 272 major league plate appearances that culminated in a woeful slash line of .187/.292/.336. There was cautious optimism despite Tsutsugo’s disappointing 2020—smacking eight home runs and putting up a mediocre 100 OPS+ in 185 plate appearances—as some leniency was given due to adjusting to a new league in a new country amidst a pandemic. The 29-year-old third baseman and left fielder slimmed down over the offseason and started taking reps at first base, and the Rays’ hope was that their two-year, $12 million deal was just a bit slow to develop to maturity.

Unfortunately, Yoshi Tsutsugo’s DFA has signaled the Rays’ desire to cut their losses, a somewhat understandable decision after Tsutsugo’s brutal .167/.244/.218 slash line to start the 2021 season. They’re cutting bait on a vaunted slugger from NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball), the Japanese league where Tsutsugo compiled over 200 home runs in his ten-year career, primarily during his final six years from 2014-2019 where he averaged over 30 home runs per season. In 2016, he belted 45 home runs to lead the Central League, slashing .322/.432/.684. He had seemingly conquered NPB and was looking for a new challenge when he signed with the Rays prior to the 2020 season.

But in 77 games at the major league, that dominance has never materialized. His patience at the plate has been declining and his walk rate has followed, making his strikeout problem that much more pronounced. His power has dried up, and he seems to struggle to make solid contact. There’s no doubt he can still hit the ball with plenty of juice, but he’s not making enough good contact to take advantage of it. The optimism fostered from homering in his MLB debut quickly faded.

There’s no doubt that Tsutsugo is a talented hitter, but he’s been unable to make the jump against major league pitching. Yoshi Tsutsugo’s DFA could be a blessing in disguise for the Japanese slugger, as he could use the opportunity to regain his confidence at the plate and ease in a bit more gradually via the minor leagues, if he decides to go that route. Either way, he isn’t likely to be back on the Rays in the near future, which sets up big questions going forward.

Filling the Holes from Yoshi Tsutsugo’s DFA

Yoshi Tsutsugo’s DFA instantly creates a void at first base for the Rays—one they are desperately hoping can be filled by Ji-Man Choi who just wrapped up a minor-league rehab assignment with the Rays’ AAA affiliate Durham Bulls. Choi was activated today following successful knee surgery, and will likely move back into an everyday first base role for the Rays though he was left out of the lineup today.

Choi’s return will prompt Yandy Díaz—who has made the lion’s share of starts at 1B for the Rays following the ineffectiveness of Tsutsugo—to move back to his more natural position at third base. The Rays are hoping that the move subsequently allows Joey Wendle—up through today the most effective offensive infielder for Tampa Bay—to slide back into a role as utility man alongside fellow utility infielder Mike Brosseau. With offensive slumps from middle infielder mainstays Willy Adames and Brandon Lowe, manager Kevin Cash is likely to continue sliding players around the infield until something clicks.

While Tampa Bay has a lot of positional flexibility, Willy Adames is the only infielder with a fully settled defensive role. Even with his offensive struggles, he’s unlikely to lose his spot due to his defensive prowess and lack of better options at shortstop, at least on the current roster. But the rest of the infield lacks the same defensive merit to accommodate their poor offensive output. Yoshi Tsutsugo’s DFA remove a negative variable, but it doesn’t exactly provide a positive one.

With Loss Comes Opportunity

For a team with high expectations following their World Series appearance, the Rays have struggled to solidify a solid infielding core. It raises the possibility that later in the season, Tampa Bay could call up one of their big prospects to help out. While the Rays have solid middle infield depth in the minors, they may need to get creative to help out their corner infield depth.

The biggest name of them all—Wander Franco, baseball’s undisputed #1 prospect—has traditionally played shortstop but has been getting reps across the infield in AAA. He may make the move to third base (often considered his long-term position anyway) sooner than expected in order to get the playing time necessary to prompt a callup. His bat would likely make an immediate impact in the lineup—which the Rays desperately need.

The other two big infield names, Vidal Bruján and Taylor Walls, are likely to be limited to the middle infield. Walls is a defensively-minded shortstop who is unlikely to provide the offensive boost the Rays need, even though his glove is ready for primetime. Bruján, however, could—except that his minor league playing time has been limited to second base, shortstop, and the outfield. Aside from Franco, there aren’t a lot of options to solve the corner infield depth problem for the Rays.

The return of Ji-Man Choi and the Yoshi Tsutsugo DFA could be the spark the Rays infield needs to get going. But for a team whose two offensive leaders by wRC+ are both catchers, something will have to change for the Rays to get the offensive momentum they need.

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