Lining Up For A Japanese Ace

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - November 01, 2006
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Just to prove that money talks in any language, World Baseball Classic MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka has hired agent Scott Boras to represent him as the hard-throwing 26-year-old looks to become the latest Japanese athlete to make the move to the Major Leagues. Smart move. Matsuzaka will be the biggest star in this winter’s free agent galaxy, and that’s not something you leave to the inexperienced. (Technically, the right-hander is not a free agent, but we’ll get to that.)

Major League Baseball got its first good look at the young pitcher in 2004 when he threw a five-hit complete game victory over the visiting team of U.S. semi all-stars. At the time, U.S. manager Bruce Bochy said the then-23-year-old had four big league pitches.

Three years later, Matsuzaka really got tongues wagging when he led Japan to a victory in the inaugural classic by going 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA.

Although MLB currently lacks a big-time starter from Japan, that is expected to change. Matsuzaka hits 96 mph on his fastball and has a sinking two-seamer to go along with a slider that is as good as any thrown in the Major Leagues. He also mixes in a change, a curve and a split-finger fastball. And while he has been rumored to throw the freakish and mysterious “gyroball” pitch, he said, in fact, he does not. At least not with any regularity or certainty. He is working on it. Here’s hoping he masters it. Hitters may disagree.

Degression time.

The pitch, developed by researchers Ryutaro Himeno and Kazushi Tezuka, is something to believe, or maybe dis-believe, as it sure seems like there is some ball-doctoring going on. In fact, its very existence has been questioned for some time. The gyroball started like most athletic innovations, in a laboratory. The two scientists were testing super computers by modeling the fluid dynamics of airflow around baseballs. After some tinkering, they evidently created a pitch that at first looks like a two-seamed fastball or a slider but one that spirals like a football and jerks away suddenly from right handed batters. There are a few clips of it on and other places. Pretty bizarre stuff.

OK, back to on topic.

Matsuzaka is still under contract to the Seibu Lions for another year, which means any Major League team interested in his services will have to pay a posting fee to have the privilege of talking to Boras.

Here’s how it works. Shortly after the end of the World Series, teams will have 40 days to submit a bid to the commissioner’s office. The team with the highest bid wins negotiating rights and has 30 days to sign the player. If they cannot come to an agreement, the posting fee is returned and Matsuzaka remains a Lion.

This is the same way Ichiro Suzuki went from the Orix Blue Wave to the Mariners. In 2000, Seattle paid $13.1 million dollars to acquire the rights to Ichiro and then signed him to a three-year $14 million deal. Matsuzaka will not come so cheap. His posting fee is expected to be around $30 million and his contract in the neighborhood of $10 million per. That’s a big hunk of change, which means few teams will even be able to enter the bidding.

The favorites?

Of course, the Yankees will never miss an opportunity to spend money and they have a desperate need for pitching. Other teams that could be in the mix include the Mariners, Dodgers, Red Sox, Angels, Rangers, Orioles, Mets and Diamondbacks. One team that could make it interesting is the Detroit Tigers. The team has a excellent relationship with Boras - as their $131 million to clients Ivan Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers and Magglio Ordonez shows - but it is unlikely owner Mike Ilitch will pay the type of money needed to compete in this lottery, even though the new NHL labor agreement means he is saving a ton of cash on the Red Wings.

Seattle will be a strong player. It has the money, a large local Asian population and team-mates he could talk to, including and maybe most important, catcher Kenji Johjima. It has also been reported that there may be connecting business interests between the Lions and the Mariners, meaning Seattle may not have to part with any real cash to secure negotiating rights. Whether Selig would allow this type of arrangement remains to be seen, but it has been said that Matsuzaka would like to play in the Pacific Northwest.

And then there are the Yankees. As mentioned in the beginning, money talks and no one has a bigger mouth than Steinbrenner. George is steaming that the Yankees have not won a title since 2000 and he’s not about to let his money set there and earn interest. He’ll make a big push to get Matsuzaka, and Matsuzaka has sounded interested. Stay tuned.

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