WITH A surprisingly thin crop of free-agent pitchers available this off-season, teams looking for a top-of-the-rotation arm have turned their eyes toward Japan and 26-year-old power pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the wild-card entry in the market. But even though Matsuzaka has been scouted by just about every big league team—including the Royals, who couldn't afford to rent him for a month—he retains an air of mystery.
Of one thing there is no doubt: Matsuzaka has major league talent. One National League scout called the Seibu Lions righthander, who's expected to be made available soon to all 30 major league teams through Japan's posting system, "one of the 10 best pitchers in the world." Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, the former Rangers and Mets skipper, says, "I saw the guys pitching in the [major league] playoffs, and there's no comparison." But one big question remains: Who will pony up the more than $100 million it might cost to get Matsuzaka?
The posting system—a sealed-bid auction among the major league teams for the exclusive rights to negotiate with a player—is expected to fetch as much as $30 million for financially troubled Seibu (whose owner was convicted in 2005 of insider trading and given a 30-month suspended sentence). On top of that it will take perhaps another $75 million over the next five years to sign Matsuzaka.
The Yankees are so enamored of Matsuzaka that assistant general manager Jean Afterman practically lives on Continental Airlines' Newark-to-Tokyo route, and the organization hired Shoichi Kida, who attended the same high school as Matsuzaka and briefly played with him on the Lions, as a scout (although one source says the two are "not especially close"). The Mariners, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Rangers and perhaps a handful of other teams may yet make a play for the 6-foot, 187-pound Matsuzaka, who was MVP of the World Baseball Classic (3--0 with a 1.38 ERA) last spring and then went 17--5 with a 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts for Seibu.
In his eight pro seasons Matsuzaka has won four Pacific League strikeout titles, two ERA titles and one Sawamura award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young). Less easy to quantify is the number of pitches in the Japanese ace's arsenal. One National League scout lists seven: 96-mph fastball, cutter, Japanese "shuuto" (like a two-seam fastball), curveball, changeup, splitter and slider; another NL scout says Matsuzaka throws three different sliders, bringing his total to nine pitches.
Talk to enough bird dogs and you begin to wonder if Matsuzaka is Japanese for Maddux. Several invoke the name of 333-game winner Greg Maddux in his prime when they talk about Matsuzaka, but Valentine says Matsuzaka "throws harder than Maddux and has a better breaking ball." (One knock on Matsuzaka is that he has pitched a lot of innings. Seibu had a weak bullpen, and Matsuzaka completed more than half of his starts last year. But because he pitched in a six-man rotation, he had just 25 starts in a 136-game season.)
Matsuzaka's mastery may turn to myth with discussion of his so-called gyroball. He's supposedly the first pitcher to throw this new pitch invented by two Japanese scientists and modeled after the football spiral to act like an overcaffeinated slider. Even if it's fiction, the tale only enhances Matsuzaka's allure.
The last time a Japanese megastar was posted, in 2000, the Mariners won the rights to Ichiro Suzuki by paying the Orix BlueWave $13.1 million and then signed Ichiro to a three-year, $14 million deal. There'll be no such bargain this time. If the team that wins the auction cannot come to terms with Matsuzaka, he will go back to Seibu for a ninth season, after which he automatically becomes a free agent. (The posting fee is not paid until a contract is signed, so there is no risk to the major league club.) If that happens, "teams know they'll be bidding against 29 other teams then," says agent Scott Boras, with whom Matsuzaka signed last week. "The unilateral ability to negotiate and the cost of that right is independent of his value as a Number 1 pitcher at his age."
Whatever Matsuzaka's final contract number is, this much we know: He is golden.
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HOT PROPERTY Matsuzaka's standout season started at the World Baseball Classic (inset).
[See caption above]