Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Giants experience downside of NPB free agency as Tetsuya Utsumi departs

by Jason Coskrey

The images late last week of lefty pitcher Tetsuya Utsumi posing for photos wearing a white Seibu Lions uniform over his dress shirt — he wore a blue tie for effect — might’ve been a bit jarring for Yomiuri Giants fans.

Other fanbases, like those raided by Yomiuri in free agency over the years, may have reveled in the sight to some extent. Because as much as free agency sometimes seems like an instrument to only make the Giants stronger, this time the Kyojin felt the business end.

Utsumi might not be a top-level player, but he was still important to the Yomiuri franchise and fanbase. It’s a reminder that even in NPB, where some stars are allowed to hang on too long, baseball is still a business.

Utsumi was probably woven in to the fabric of the Yomiuri franchise more than any of the current players outside of Shinnosuke Abe. Now he’s with the Lions, taken as compensation for the Giants’ signing of free agent catcher Ginjiro Sumitani.

Sumitani is an OK player, but it’s probably a bitter pill to swallow for some fans, seeing as how the Giants already have Seiji Kobayashi and Abe has hinted at catching again.

Utsumi has spent all 15 of his pro seasons with the Giants. He twice led the Central League in wins and was the 2012 Japan Series MVP. He’s 133-101 with a 3.21 ERA in his career and helped Yomiuri to six pennants and two Japan Series titles.

Aside from a stretch from 2011-2012, when he was 33-11 with a 1.84 ERA in 371 ⅓ innings, Utsumi wasn’t elite, but he was good and at times great.

That the Lions selected him as compensation seemed to come as shock to Yomiuri. The team president said he hoped Utsumi would return one day. Reliever Scott Mathieson changed his Twitter profile photo to one of Utsumi and retiring pitcher Tetsuya Yamaguchi. Former star pitcher and manager Tsuneo Horiuchi voiced his support for the pitcher, as did many of his now-former teammates.

“Your baseball life isn’t over yet, so do your best,” Abe said according to Sports Hochi.

Utsumi admitted his own shock, but seems to be taking the move in stride.

“It’s the rule, so there’s really nothing to say,” he said during his introductory news conference with Seibu. “I want to take it as a positive.”

Utsumi is joining a team that won the Pacific League pennant in 2018 but has to replace ace Yusei Kikuchi and infielder Hideto Asamura. He’ll reunite with Hayato Takagi, the pitcher the Lions chose as compensation when the Giants signed Ryoma Nogami last offseason.

“I want to do my best to fit in quickly,” he was quoted as saying by Jiji Press. “My goal is to win double-digit games.”

Perhaps the Giants didn’t think Seibu would opt for an expensive (Utsumi is making an estimated ¥100 million) 36-year-old who has only cracked 100 innings once in the last four seasons as compensation. So leaving him off the list of players shielded from being taken would allow the team to put someone else on it.

A sound strategy, until someone actually takes him.

Now the Kyojin are left perhaps no better competitively, but still saying goodbye to one of their fan-favorites for once as business wins out over sentimentality.