Friday, October 27, 2006


as the team, under now-desperate general manager jim hendry, has apparently set itself to a one-year turnaround, prospect development has taken a back seat to immediate gratification. with the advent of a sort of irrational madness that might be called daisukemania or even gyromania, whispers about the pitching-poor cubs -- who, despite fielding a bevy of promising young prospects, notched the third-worst era in the national league last year and whose staff remains in turmoil -- pirating a starter from japanese ball have grown into open calls and shouts.

much was made of hendry's comments regarding the bidding for 26-year-old daisuke matsuzaka, but this page sees little reason to consider them further. daisuke is likely to field a posting fee of some $30mm -- payable to his current team, the seibu lions -- and a contract likely to be in the neighborhood of at least $6-8mm a year. the last star of comparable caliber to emerge from japan, ichiro suzuki, negotiated a three-year/$15mm deal with seattle in 2001 which will be the reference point from which daisuke's negotioations (fronted by scott boras) depart. these numbers are unapproachable for a cub team that has to fill several holes on a budget if they are to effect the kind of turnaround they profess to desire.

but that doesn't mean that the cubs have no prospect of obtaining help from japan.

for the uninitiated, the posting system allows the rights to players who are under contract in japan to be sold to major league clubs with the mutual consent of both leagues and the japanese players association (which was encouraged by the mlbpa to challenge the system under international labor rights law, but has not although the system remains under constant threat of attack and revision). players gain free agency in japan only after nine years, but as free agency approaches teams can post players still under their reserve control who are receiving interest from american clubs in search of cash compensation that can be quite considerable. the rights to posted players are then subjected to silent auction, the winner of which is granted a 30-day window to negotiate a new contract with the player. (japanese players are not allowed to negotiate with major league teams until after the free agent declaration period in japan is over, which is in the first week of november, which is approximately when players are posted.) if a deal cannot be reached, the posting fee is refunded and the player returns to his japanese club.

questions of what one might expect from investing in these pitchers are difficult to answer. some have called the japanese leagues a sort of 'quadruple-a', with talent of a corresponding level. while such a subjective judgment is hard to verify, this page has examined the careers of four previous crossover pitchers -- hideki irabu, kaz ishii, hideo nomo and masato yoshii -- who are the only examples of players who made significant numbers of starts on both sides of the pacific. on consideration of the average decline in performance in moving from japan to america, this page has concluded that one can expect 1) an increase in the rate of hits per nine innings of about one; 2) the rate of walks per nine to remain approximately constant; and 3) the rate of strikeouts per nine to decline in the area of 20% from their npb statistics.

applied to daisuke, this means an expectation over time of 8.2 h/9, 3.2 bb/9 and 6.9 k/9, which corresponds to a 1.27 whip. a quick survey of major league players producing similar numbers yields a likely comp of brandon webb -- in other words, daisuke is likely to be very good indeed, and at 26 is only now coming into his prime. the largest concern has to be for the extraordinary number of innings he was allowed to throw over the last few years as a young pitcher, but for many that will be neither here nor there. of course, with the cubs likely to run at the back of the daisuke pack, it's all really neither here nor there for this page.

however, we wouldn't at all be surprised to see the cubs bid for and get 31-y/o righthander hiroki kuroda. he isn't a pitcher of the caliber of daisuke (though he did win his central league era title this year), but then he's cheaper -- probably field 2-3 years for $5-7mm per with no (as he is a free agent) posting fee. the potential sticking point is that the player has to want to come. players like kuroda are already successes in japan, and to come to the united states and fail a la hideki "fat toad" irabu is not an attractive prospect. but kuroda is said to have been taking english lessons, a telltale sign.

applied to kuroda, however, these same rules that we above applied to daisuke yield an expectation of 10.3 h/9, 2.5 bb/9, 5.3 k/9, 1.42 whip -- the 2006 ballpark of esteban loaiza or paul maholm, both 15-20 vorp starters. active starters with career statistics in this vein include loaiza, zack greinke, joe mays and mike maroth.

other possibilities that have been mentioned include kei igawa, koji uehara, hirotoshi ishii and kazumi saito. igawa seems unlikely to make his way -- he is three years from free agency and his team (hanshin) has made public that they want to keep him. it would take a very considerable posting fee to change their minds. uehara is in a similar situation, closer to free agency but playing for the yomiuri giants who are openly antagonistic of the posting system. ishii is an injury-plagued reliever and probably won't interest the cubs. the 28-y/o saito won the sawamura award (analogous to the cy young) for reaching what might be called the triple crown (era, wins, ks) of his league. the expectation of saito -- 9.3 h/9, 3.3 bb/9, 6.1 k/9, 1.40 whip -- is somewhat better, closer to noah lowry or vincente padilla this last year with a 20-ish vorp. but, again, saito is nowhere near free agency and his club, the softbank hawks, is unlikely to post him with so much time on their side and none of the organizational cash concerns that perpetually haunt clubs like the yakult swallows.

one position player who will be making the trip is akinori iwamura, third baseman for low-budget yakult and teammate of the aforementioned ishii. (one who apparently won't is the most coveted of all the positional players in japan, south korean seung yeop lee.) iwamura is very unlikely at this point to figure into hendry's plans, though the phillies have expressed interest, unless negotiations with aramis ramirez go disastrously wrong.

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