More on New Cardinal Maekawa from Luhnow and Rodriguez

As I had footnoted on Friday in my original article on the Katsuhiko Maekawa signing, the 30-year-old Japanese left-hander has been signed to a minor league contract by the St. Louis Cardinals, but did not receive an invitation to Major League Spring Training.

Since then, I have communicated with Jeff Luhnow, Cardinals Vice President of Amateur Scouting and Player Development and his leader in the Caribbean, Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez regarding the signing.

Between the two executives and some additional research, we now can fill in more of the details of the Maekawa story.

Past interest

Luhnow notes this was at least the Cardinals’ second look at the pitcher. “We knew about him last year but we did not pursue him. He did sign a contract with another club (ed: the Washington Nationals) but his visa was held up and by the time he finally got that cleared up, it was too late,” he explained.

Returned to the Dominican

While I had noted in my first article that Maekawa had been pitching in Venezuela for Caribes, I missed the fact he had started this off-season in the Dominican. He returned there in 2008 after putting together a very nice 2-1 record with a 1.82 ERA in seven starts for the Gigantes del Cibao in 2007.

Back in Cibao this winter, Maekawa apparently hadn’t built up much goodwill from the previous winter. Rodriguez explains. “He had been pitching in the Dominican Republic this winter but was released after a few appearances.” Specifically, it was at the end of October after pitching in just two games.

Perhaps rusty from the long layoff, Maekawa only lasted 3 1/3 innings in two starts and was charged with nine earned runs. After his release, he came across Luhnow and the Cardinals contingent while they were on a scouting mission.

Asked the Cardinals for a job

Luhnow explains how it came about. “About a month ago I took a large group of scouts and player development people to the DR. While we were there, we ran into Maekawa and he said he was looking for a place to pitch. We had him come to our academy and face hitters.”

The Cardinals brain trust liked what they saw in Maekawa.

“His stuff was very good for a guy who hadn’t been pitching in a while. His fastball was 90 plus, he showed a sharp curve and a splitty with tumble. He has some deception in his delivery (the ball just seems to appear out of nowhere). The biggest issue with him has always been his control, but he put up some decent numbers in Japan,” Luhnow offered.

Note that over his 10-year career in Japan, Maekawa walked over five batters per nine innings. This winter, it has been almost 12 free passes per nine, so there is a lot of work to be done here.

Moved to Venezuela

Luhnow and the Cardinals signed Maekawa and sent him to work under Enrique Brito with Caribes in the Venezuelan League in late November.

“We decided to get him into some games in Venezuela for a month or so until it was time to head home and get his visa. We are hopeful there will be no hangups this year and he will be in Jupiter in time for minor league spring training,” Luhnow said.

Rodriguez is responsible for making that happen. “I’ve been involved on the administrative side (visa, contract signing, etc.). Maekawa just returned home to Japan to attend his visa appointment this week and will not return to Venezuela,” Rodriguez explained.

Back to Japan

Hopefully for the Cardinals, Maekawa’s visa hearing will go better than it did last off-season. Though he signed a deal with the Washington Nationals for the 2008 season, he was not allowed to fulfill the contract.

The Japan Times confirmed that Maekawa was fired by the Orix Blue Wave in 2007 as the result of the pitcher’s arrest in Osaka in 2006. He allegedly fled the scene of a car-bicycle accident when the police arrived and asked for his license. It had been suspended since another incident in 2002.

Maekawa originally joined the then-Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1997 as their first-round draft pick. In his ten years in Japan playing in both the Pacific and Central Leagues, he had a 31-45 career record with a 5.26 ERA in 149 games. During his final season there, 2006, Maekawa was 1-7 with a 4.37 ERA in 24 games.

Career stats

Following are Maekawa’s stats while in Japan and since.

1997-2006 Jpn 31 45 5.26 149 95 16 1 9 609 628 385 356 48 345 417
2007 Winter
Gigantes Dom 2 1 1.82 7 7 29.2 19 6 10 19
2008 Winter
Gigantes Dom 0 2 24.30 2 2 0 0 0 3.1 6 9 9 1 6 3 2.00 0.400
Caribes Ven 0 2 6.39 4 4 0 0 0 12.2 12 9 9 2 15 12 2.57 0.255

Opening or closing doors?

What with all the Cardinals-related excitement generated over Japan in the last few weeks simply because the general manager met with the agents of a couple of free agents from that country, some overly-optimistic fans look to Maekawa’s signing as a door-opener for the organization overseas.

I recall the same types of comments when the Cards signed their first Japanese player, So Taguchi, back in 2002. Of course, it didn’t happen. At least in that situation, the player was a model citizen and became a favorite in St. Louis.

A Japanese-American friend of mine familiar with the Maekawa situation made it clear that due to his off-field problems, public sentiment against Maekawa in Japan is very strong. In fact, while perhaps only rumors, at least one Washington Post writer believes Maekawa has unofficially been banned from the Japanese major leagues.

As a result, it is hard to believe any attention the Cardinals will receive in Japan as a result of the signing will be positive.

The future

Consider this move comparable to the signing of a six-year minor league veteran free agent to provide depth to the upper levels of the Cardinals’ system.

Maekawa’s past record indicates that he is the type of pitcher flexible enough to serve in most any role, whether as a starter, long reliever or left-handed specialist.

Luhnow basically confirmed that when he said, “We see Maekawa as competing for a rotation spot or bullpen spot in Memphis.”