International intrigue (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday November 7, 2007 2:16PM; Updated: Wednesday November 7, 2007 2:16PM
Fukudome, of course, could stay, sign the one-year offer from Chunichi and declare free agency again after next season. But the relationship between Fukudome and the Chunichi front office has not always been easy. And it would surprise many long-time observers to see Fukudome go to another Japanese team. He has, for some years, said he wants to play in America.
Graczyk, who writes for the Japan Times and, together with fellow Japanese baseball expert Bob Bavasi, publishes a yearly English language guide to Japanese baseball, puts the chances of Fukudome signing with an American team this winter at about 80 percent. "He has an excellent chance of being a regular in the major leagues," Graczyk says. "I don't know about an All-Star, but ... "
If Fukudome signs with an American team, some estimate that the contract could be a three- or four-year deal at somewhere around $10 million a year. It's a lot of money to shell out for someone unproven in the majors. But it pales in comparison to what the Red Sox paid last winter for Matsuzaka.
Boston, remember, put up more than $51 million (the so-called posting fee) for the simple right to negotiate with Dice-K. When the Sox completed those negotiations, signing Matsuzaka to a six-year contract for $52 million, his former team, the Seibu Lions, claimed the original $51 million. So Boston's total outlay was more than $103 million.
The difference between last year's Japanese find and this one is simple. Matsuzaka was not a free agent. Fukudome is, so he'll have no posting fee attached.
Does that mean that last year's Matsuzaka Mania will turn into Fukudome Fever this season? Among big-league teams, it has already started.
Here are two other Japanese players to keep an eye out for this winter:
Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Hiroshima Carp
The 32-year-old Kuroda, another free agent, has his detractors, but he's a savvy veteran who was the best pitcher in the pitching-heavy Central League in 2006, with a 1.85 ERA. Kuroda, who reportedly has a fastball in the low-90s, slipped considerably in 2007, but he still projects as a middle-of-the-rotation starter in the U.S.
"He's a workhorse. He's a guy who's going to suck up innings. He's got quality stuff, too," says the Royals' Hillman. "He's not afraid to pitch inside, and he's not afraid to pitch to contact."
Kuroda's walks doubled this season while his strikeouts went down, red flags for any pitcher. It was, in all, a difficult year for Kuroda, who was eligible for free agency after the 2006 season but elected to remain in Japan in part because his father fell ill. Rumors swirled around him last year when many suspected he might sign with another team to be closer to his sick father. But he stayed with the Carp, where he went 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA. His father died a couple of months ago.
"The scouts that have come around this year have said he's lost something," says Graczyk. "So maybe the window of opportunity is very narrow now. Maybe he should have gone last year. But it could be he just had a bad year. It could be because of his father's worsening illness. I don't know. But I would think he would have good value [for a major league team] for at least three years."
Graczyk puts Kuroda's chances of signing with an American team at about 50 percent.
Masahide Kobayashi, RHP, Chiba Lotte Marines
Another free agent, Kobayashi has been the steady closer for the Marines for the past seven years. He has a "nasty, down-hard split," according to Hillman, and several other pitches, including a hard slider and a good fastball.
Kobayashi, who turns 34 next May, has blown a lot of saves over the past few years. But his manager, former Mets skipper Bobby Valentine, keeps sending him out there.
"He goes through a slump or two every year, but slumping or not, Valentine-kantoku sends Kobayashi out to the mound regardless," says Japanbaseball.com's Westbay. "If Bobby has faith in his closer even when he's slumping, I don't know what better testimony you need for him."
Kobayashi could become another of those so-so five-pitch Japanese pitchers who thrives in American baseball. Takashi Saito, who pitched for the Yokohama Bay Stars before becoming the Dodgers' closer early in the 2006 season, was one of those. So was Boston's Hideki Okajima, who pitched for the Yomiuri Giants and Hillman's old team, the Fighters.
"He could be like Okajima," says Graczyk. "When he pitched here, there was nothing special about him -- at all. And then you look at what he's done with the Red Sox."
Braves scouts have been spotted trailing Kobayashi. Graczyk puts his chances of signing in the U.S. at 50 percent.
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