Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

AN UNPRECEDENTED MOVE

Wow. In a move unprecedented in the world of sports, the Red Sox have paid more than $51 million just for the right negotiate a contract with Seibu Lions star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the MVP of the World Baseball Classic. Yes, the Red Sox have spent more than $51 million just for the right to spend additional tens of millions on a single player. Wow.

The Japanese hurler is considered this best available pitcher in a thin free agent class. Matsuzaka has a career record of 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA. And he reportedly has a repertoire which includes a mid-90s fastball that rides up and in to fool or overpowers hitters, a forkball, a cutter, a slider, a splitter, a changeup, and a curveball. And then there is his signature "gyroball", which breaks down and away to righthanded batters. If he really has that many effective pitches, he'll probably be worth all the money.

But the concern among some is the fact that 26-year-old righthander has been ridden hard, throwing more than 1,400 innings in his eight-year career. Of greatest concern, Matsuzaka missed most of 2002 with an elbow injury. Following his recovery, he completed at least 10 games for three straight years, and in one 11-inning game, he threw 150 pitches.

The question is whether his elbow and shoulder have too many "miles" on them, and if they could break down under continued stress.

The good news is that pitchers in Japan only make one start per week, and Matsuzaka has pitched in excess of 200 innings in only two seasons. In fact, he's averaged just 175 innings per season during his career.

Former Mets and Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, who has managed in Japan and watched Matsuzaka pitch, compared him with Mike Mussina and Greg Maddux but "with more pitches." Still others have described him as the next Tom Seaver, Curt Schilling, or David Cone -- or a combination of all of them.

Adjustments will have to be made -- both to Major League hitters and a foreign nation. Boston is not known for its Japanese immigrant population or culture. And Matsuzaka will have to face the scrutiny of rabid Red Sox fans and the Boston media -- no easy task for an American pitcher. But he will be a marked man because of his whopping, potentially $100 million, price tag. Expectations will be high, and there will be little room for failure. How he holds up under the pressure will be critical. Will he shine, or will he wilt? That remains to be seen.

One thing's for sure -- he won't have any Japanese teammates to turn to for help or advice. And communication with his teammates will be an issue. He will be a stranger in a strange land, a man truly on his own. Don't be surprised to see him sitting alone in the dugout all season. It has all the makings of a disaster. But, of course, if he pitches up to expectations, or rather the hype, he will be a golden boy from the land of the rising sun, earning the love of Red Sox Nation, and he will learn just how precious that can be.

But first the Sox must sign him. The enormous posting fee may present a challenge to Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, in his effort to squeeze anything close to Matsuzaka's true open-market value from the Sox. Yes, Boras is a master negotiator, but this time the circumstances are different.

If Matsuzaka is unhappy with the Sox' offer, his lone option is to return to Japan and try to post again next year, or wait two years to become a free agent. While Boras is used to getting what he wants, he is facing two extraordinary challenges here. For one, only the Red Sox will be negotiating with Matsuzaka. For another, there's a 30-day time limit to negotiate, so Boras can't use the clock to his advantage, as usual. Under the circumstances, Boras would seem to lack leverage in negotiations.

But to land a pitcher of Matsuzaka's caliber, at his young age, in such a thin market, the Sox will pay dearly. At the least, they've kept him from the Yankees, but this is not good enough. Now they much bring home the prize. Feeling that the marketing rights and the foothold gained in Japan will be worth the investment, the Red Sox are probably in for at least four years and $40 million, perhaps even more.

The move will either prove to be an epic disaster or an epic windfall. We can only hope for the latter, and eagerly anticipate Spring and Matsuzaka's first start. A rotation that includes Curt Schilling, and three 26-year-olds - Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, and Jonathan Papelbon - could be among the very best in baseball, and something Sox fans have long since dreamed of.

Play ball!

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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