Turning Japanese?

Something of a curveball, in the news that Arizona have made an offer to Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda. Seattle appear to be the front runners - the Ichiro factor again, in no small part - and my colleague at Lookout Landing has already written about him. Kuroda could be wanting a three-year, $30m deal, a rather large increase on the 300 million yen (about $2.7m) he earned playing for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. The 32-year old threw 179.2 innings for them last season, with an ERA of 3.56 and a K:BB ratio of 123:42. His 2006 was phenomenal, with an ERA of only 1.85 and a K:BB ratio of 144:21.

It should be noted the Carp stadium in which he pitched is one of the most offensive friendly parks in Japan: the measurements at Hiroshima Municipal Stadium are only 300 feet to left, 380 to center, and 300 to right. I guess he should therefore feel extremely at home in Chase. Oh, and his mother threw the shot-put for Japan in the 1964 Olympics. Not sure if that's significant. :-) The good thing is, Kuroda is an unrestricted free agent, so no posting would be necessary, as for Dice-K: it's straight offers to the player. He thought about coming to the US after 2006, but opted to stay one more season with Hiroshima. He was on the Japan squad for the 2006 World Baseball Classic but had to pull out after an injury in a warm-up game. Here's a detailed scouting report, but as a quick summary, from the end of 2006:

He is said to feature a mid-90s fastball, slider, forkball, and shuuto (also called a "reverse slider", it’s a pitch similar to a screwball, but with less break). Without seeing his arsenal, it’s tough to tell for sure, but his mediocre strikeout rates in Japan will probably not translate well to America (there are exceptions - Takashi Saito’s strikeout rate was much higher with the Dodgers than in his last several seasons on the BayStars, for instance). Based on his stuff, statistics, and age, Hiroki Kuroda profiles as a #3-#4 starter in MLB. With a little luck, he could turn out seasons like Paul Byrd’s 2002 or Brad Radke’s 2004. If he struggles, he could become Carlos Silva (2006 edition).

Chad Tracy is recovering after the microfracture surgery on his left knee, but is still a long way from being fully fit: he can now walk normally, but hasn't swung a bat. He's "shooting for Opening Day," though this prognosis is tempered with a lot of caution from all concerned. I suspect that the outcome likely ties in to the Tony Clark issue: he will be testing the free-agent market, but if we think Tracy might be ready for Opening Day, the need for Clark diminishes sharply. The Twins appear to be particularly interested in him, and the AL would give Clark a chance to DH, as well as spelling Morneau at first-base. Jeff Passan of Yahoo ranks Tony the best first-baseman available, so would likely enhance his value above what we're prepared to pay.

Thus far in the free-agent marketplace, it's closers who're flavor of the month, with Rivera getting a three-year, $45m deal from the Yankees, the most ever paid to a reliever. This likely fuelled Jose Valverde's demand for $50-60m: no doubt Josh Byrnes chortled heartily at this, given the stable of replacements available in the D-backs bullpen. Byrnes would no doubt point out to Jose, that he's less than 18 months from being so utterly dreadful as a closer, he was not only demoted from the role, but taken off the major-league roster entirely. Anyone remember the last time Rivera played in the minors? One rehab game excepted, that would be 1995, From 2005-2007, among 161 relievers with one hundred or more games, Rivera ranks #4 for ERA+ (211) and Valverde is forty-third (134); decent, but behind luminaries like David Riske, Scot Shields, Bobby Howry and Brandon Medders. Mind you, Francisco Cordero, strongly rumored to be joining the Reds on a four-year, $46m deal, is only just ahead (135, #41) of Valverde, so I can see Jose's point.

However, the budget-busting arms race might make it tempting to shop Valverde elsewhere. One obvious contender would be the Brewers, who lost Francisco Cordero to the Reds. They are unlikely to be able to pick up a replacement on the free-agent market, though they may give Derrick Turnbow, who had 63 saves over 2005-06, a chance. However, Turnbow's control problems are legendary, with his number of walks almost doubling in 2007, compared to two season previously. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports manager Doug Melvin as saying, "We might have to go find somebody. We do have some excess (starting) pitching (available to trade). We can be a little more open-minded. We'd like to add another bullpen arm." Former D-back Chris Capuano is a name mentioned; he sucked last year (a 5-12 record to go with a 5.10 ERA), but was an All-Star in 2006. Frankly, though, I'd be aiming a little higher than that for Valverde: Yovani Gallardo is very intriguing, a 21-year old who made 17 starts, with a 3.67 overall ERA and a K:BB ratio of 101:37.

Much credit to Tom Glavine, for declining his $13m contract option with the Mets, opting to sign for five million dollars less in Atlanta, so he can finish his career where it began, and be with his kids. "I felt like as time was going on, especially this last season, that my kids were making more and more sacrifices for me," Glavine said. "That's not how I was raised or what I'm about. As a parent, you're the one who's supposed to be making sacrifices for your kids." Wow. That's impressive. Even more so, he added, "I told the Mets was I didn't think I was worth $13 million. I'm not that kind of pitcher anymore... I'm not worth that money." Such brutal honesty is refreshing and rare: we can only hope that, inspired by this, the Huge Manatee's refund check to us for $20m is in the post.

Arizona is reported to be one of a number of teams (up to six in some reports) sniffing around Matt Clement. He hasn't pitched in almost 18 months now, thanks to shoulder surgery, and given team policy is not to offer incentive-based contracts, one suspects he'll get better deals elsewhere. I just can't see him being a top of the rotation starter in 2008, and that's what we need. The same piece also mentions that we have been talking to Mark Sweeney, as a possible candidate to fill the backup 1B/pinch-hit role occupied by Tony Clark. Interest in the left-hander would tend to suggest Jackson is being looked upon as the primary first-baseman next year.

The Diamondbacks also set their 40-man roster, in advance of the Rule 5 draft, with the addition of right-handed pitcher Esmerling Vasquez, first baseman/outfielder Javier Brito and catcher Wilkin Castillo, all three of whom spent most of 2007 in Double-A Mobile. However, Vasquez may not see much action in 2008: he injured his non-throwing arm during an Arizona Fall League game, and it's uncertain yet whether that will require surgery. That leaves a number of Diamondbacks prospects who might be taken (or "Uggla'd", if you like - a term to be used along with a heavy sigh and rolling of eyes) in the Rule 5 draft on December 6. Jamie D'Antona would seem the most likely candidate, and was left off the 40-man due to a poor showing in the Dominican League (8-for-41, with one walk and nine K's). Evan MacLane is also available, though his 7.70 ERA and 1.96 WHIP for Tucson isn't impressive. Since we're now at our 40-man limit, it seems we won't be taking anybody ourselves.

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