Cardinals consider two Japanese pitchers

I read with considerable interest Joe Strauss’ article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday in which a small celebration occurred over the St. Louis Cardinals’ interest and activities in the Pacific Rim.

“This was something we had interest in as an organization. We’ve made a pursuit of it,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told Strauss.

To the best of my knowledge, the club’s efforts are still in their infancy, at least in the area of amateur scouting. They have a couple of people assigned to cover an awful lot of ground over there. Matters are complicated by factors of distance, culture and most importantly, rules that make free movement of players from The East to the US especially difficult.

On many occasions over the last five years, Cardinals Vice President Jeff Luhnow has reminded me of the challenges of establishing a foothold in Asia.

On the other hand, the success of professional scouting is very dependent on one 800-pound gorilla – the rules of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).

Kawakami and Uehara
Kawakami and Uehara

Not to be dismissive to the Cardinals’ hard-working scouts in any way, but the two names in the P-D, 33-year-old pitchers Kenshin Kawakami and Koji Uehara were already relatively well-known in international baseball circles.

In fact, even I profiled them a few months ago. At the time, I didn’t call the two out as specific targets of the Cardinals, but instead as players projected to be available as free agents this off-season.

Because both pitchers have over ten years of service in the NPB, they are true free agents and do not have to pass through the restrictive and expensive player posting process.

That may be one reason why they appeal to the Cardinals, though the club would still have to bid against other interested clubs, same as with US free agents.

As a result, I am not overly excited about the Cardinals’ chances. If the players are really good, the Cardinals could easily lose out in the bidding and if the players are undesirable to other organizations, they should be undesirable to the Cards, too.

While neither of these pitchers has to go through the posting process, I thought I would digress for a bit to explain about it.

The posting process

The “posting system” is documented in a signed agreement that governs player movement from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB organizations.

A two-part bidding process is in place for all posted players that by definition will likely squeeze out mid-market clubs such as the Cardinals from getting top players, not unlike as in the USA (C.C. Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, etc.).

MLB teams are allowed to place sealed bids through the MLB Commissioner’s Office for the right to negotiate with selected NPB players. They may only be posted, or made available, if their NPB club is willing to let them leave.

The NPB team is informed of the highest bid. They must make their decision whether or not to accept without knowing which MLB team is the highest bidder.

These initial fees compensate the NPB team for the loss of their player. The NPB player is then allowed 30 days to negotiate with the winning MLB team regarding the terms of his prospective contract in the USA.

The whopper

The most famous example is that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was posted two winters ago. The Boston Red Sox submitted the highest bid of over $51 million, which was accepted by the Seibu Lions of the NPB.

On to step two.

Dice-K’s agent, (guess who?) Scott Boras, wanted a five or six-year deal and he got exactly that, a six-year, $52 million deal with the BoSox. That made the club’s total investment in the pitcher over $100 million.

Of course, I am not assuming for one second that the two players in which the Cardinals are interested would command anywhere near that type of money.

I should note that this posting system only applies to players that were under contract with a Japanese team and does not apply to amateur players. The latter is currently a major point of contention. The final player of the five highlighted below, Junichi Tazawa, entered MLB this way, much to the dismay of the NPB.

Who are these guys?

The following five capsules will be a part of the “2009 Fantasy Baseball Guide” magazine, for which I am a long-time contributor. It will hit newsstands this spring.

I will start with the two players linked to the Cardinals. Mozeliak met with their agents during the Winter Meetings last week. While the P-D article discussing the two is entitled “Fuentes waits, so Birds mull options”, it is difficult to picture either as legitimate consolation prizes if the Cards cannot sign free-agent closer Brian Fuentes.

One last time, please remember that both Uehara and Kawakami are free agents, and as such are not required to pass through the posting process. Also be aware that NPB stats listed below do not translate directly to MLB.

The two in question

Right-hander Koji Uehara was 6-5 with 72 strikeouts and a 3.81 ERA in 89 2/3 innings this past season for the Yomiuri Giants, a major drop from his 1.74 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 62 innings in 2007, his only season as a closer. He was actually demoted to the Japanese minor leagues for two months during 2008 for poor performance. At age 33, what role might he play?

Kenshin Kawakami, also 33, was reportedly Japan’s highest-paid starter at $3 million last season. A veteran of international competition like Uehara, Kawakami was 9-5 with 112 strikeouts and a 2.30 ERA in 117 innings for the Chunichi Dragons. That was a considerable improvement from his 3.55 ERA in 2007. The right-hander sports an 87 mph fastball, cutter, and curveball. He fans nearly a batter per inning, but can be prone to yield the long-ball, too.

Three others

Hitoki Iwase, the left-handed closer of the Chunichi Dragons, has collected 165 saves over the last four seasons. The 33-year-old’s ERA was 2.94 this past season after a 2.18 mark in 2007 and a 1.30 ERA the year prior. Iwase’s fastball is said to reach 93 mph, backed up by a plus slider. How much does he have in the tank, though?

Olympian Yu Darvish is the biggest name in Japan, but there has been no announcement on whether or not he will be posted this winter. Rumors of a $75 million posting fee would clearly set a record if true. The 22-year-old right-hander went 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA and fanned 208 in 200.2 innings for the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

Junichi Tazawa is a hard-throwing 22-year-old right-hander who played for a semi-pro club in 2008 and therefore was not required to go through the posting process. Tazawa is said to sport a mid-90s fastball, a 12-to-6 overhand curve and a splitter, but is unproven professionally. He signed a Major League contract with the Boston Red Sox in early December, but is expected to start 2009 in the minor leagues.