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It was something of a surprise to hear that the Arizona Diamondbacks had entered the bidding for Daisuke Matsuzaka, the next Japanese player to try and make it big in the major-leagues. I mean, I'm not aware of there being a large expat community living in Gilbert: perhaps the aim is to lure the Japanese tourists down from Las Vegas. [Visit Hoover Dam! See the Grand Canyon! Take in a Diamondbacks game!] Or perhaps we're simply tossing our hat in the ring to drive the price up for the competition.

Best start with a little background on the guy, so we know who he is. He achieved virtually overnight success across Japan as a teenager in the 1998 High-School tournament, when he threw 250 pitches in a 17-inning game - and then, came back the next day to throw a no-hitter in the final. [That sound you hear is Dusty Baker nodding his head in approval.] He was the #1 pick in the draft that same year, and became Rookie of the Year in 1999, going 16-5. He won an Olympic bronze in 2004, and was named MVP in the World Baseball Classic at the start of this season. There have been reports of elbow problems - my, what a surprise! - but he was fine this year, going 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA for the Seibu Lions.

He has faced major-league hitters, during the 2004 MLB tour of Japan, and came out on top, throwing a five-hitter in a complete-game, 5-1 victory. His fastball touches 96 mph, with late movement, and also throws a splitter, change-up, sinker and slider. Matsuzaka has also been linked to the infamous gyroball, the semi-mythical breaking pitch that spins the ball like a bullet, but that's probably just hype. Here are some clips of him on YouTube [thanks to McCray at Diamondbacks Bullpen for tracking these down - they open in a new window]:

Should probably also explain how the process works with regard to Japanese players who are under contract. The first stage is what's known as "posting" a player, in which teams pay, not for the player's services, but simply the rights to negotiate with the player - this money goes to his club in Japan. They had until yesterday afternoon to send in sealed bids to the commissioner's office: they forward the winning amount (but not the bidders name) to his team, the Seibu Lions, who have until November 14th to accept it. They then get 30 days to negotiate a contract deal with Matsuzaka: if they don't sign him, the money is returned, and the player stays in Seibu for next season, until he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2008.

So there are two costs here: firstly, the posting price. In 2000, it cost the Mariners $13m to win negotiating rights for Ichiro Suzuki, and it could take at least $20m, probably $25m to top the bidding here, especially in a thin pitching market. Indeed, ESPN claims that the Red Sox bid $38-45m. That, however, contradicts this report which indicates the Lions were "disappointed" with the highest bid, and were evaluating whether or not to accept it.

Assuming they do accept, the winners then have to negotiate a deal - and Matsuzaka's agent is none other than Scott Boras. Generally, a top pitcher would expect something around $15m/year (Oswalt = $73m/five years), but the exclusive nature of the negotiating rights should act to restrain the price: it's not as if Boras can take his 'toy' and go play in someone else's yard. And teams will also have to factor in the posting fee, adding a significant chunk to the cost of the contract.

Still, the D-backs [but not, please note, the D-Backs or D'backs...] are believed to have entered the bidding, along with the Yankees, Mets, Rangers, Red Sox and Cubs. Maybe this is what Josh Byrnes meant when he said they would explore other options than free-agency? It's certainly an interesting avenue, though I doubt Arizona has quite the appeal of the Yankees. However, this is a double-edged sword: he will have a lot more to live up to in New York, whereas in Phoenix, he just has to be better than the Huge Manatee and we'll love him for it.

Some caution might be warranted, since the track record of Japanese-born starting pitchers in the major leagues is, spotty, though only a handful have come over from the J-leagues and started more than ten games [as an aside, did you know AZ's Stephen Randolph was born in Okinawa?]. Of those, only Tomo Ohka has been significantly better than average:

  • Hideki Irabu: 5.16 ERA, 80 starts, ERA+ 88
  • Kaz Ishii: 4.44 ERA, 102 starts, ERA+ 91
  • Hideo Nomo: 4.18 ERA, 318 starts, ERA+ 98
  • Tomokazu Ohka: 4.04 ERA, 162 starts, ERA+ 111
  • Masato Yoshii: 4.62 ERA, 118 starts, ERA+ 101

Is Matsuzaka better than these? Maybe. It is possible to convert statistics from the Japanese leagues into an approximation of major league performance, and this suggests he'd be capable of an ERA of 3.50 or less [depending, obviously, on which league he's in]. Along with Webb, that would definitely give us a very capable 1-2 punch, so I can see why we might be interested, though there is no way we would be able to afford the $40m posting fee mentioned above.

My instinct, however, is that it's nonsense, because the Lions would have pounced on a huge fee like that immediately, without the delay we are seeing in announcing the victors. If the Lions are indeed disappointed in the amount, then really, the winners might as well be the D-backs as anyone else. We'll wait and see: should know something soon, early next week at the latest. Should we get him, that will be a very strong statement regarding the team's intentions to be fully competitive in 2007.