Matsuzaka Madness

It’s the morning after the official announcement that the Red Sox won the rights to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka—could I conceivably write about anything else?

We’ve already featured plenty of material about Matsuzaka and, of course, he’s had a tiny bit of media coverage outside of the Hardball Times as well. Instead, let’s look at the implications of the deal across baseball.

Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt

Whether the posting fee was $42 million (as Peter Gammons reported) or $51.1 million (as the AP has it), it’s an amount that must make Barry Zito‘s mouth water. After all, now that Matsuzaka is off the market, unavailable for 2007 for 29 of the 30 MLB teams, Zito is probably the best option remaining of those pitchers who aren’t talking about retirement.

Even better for Zito and Jason Schmidt, the winner of the Seibu sweepstakes wasn’t a team that was figured to play heavily in the bidding for either of them. Matsuzaka’s posting fee suggested that the market will bear tremendous salaries for starting pitching this season, and it didn’t shrink the market: the Yankees, Mets, Cubs, Padres, Mariners, and Rangers are still likely to make a play for one of both pitchers.

For all the talk of this year’s being a weak free-agent class, it really isn’t poor as starting pitchers go. There may never be enough top-of-the-rotation options to go around, but it’s no worse than last year, when (if you don’t count Roger Clemens) A.J. Burnett and Kevin Millwood were the top options. After that? Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn. Sound familiar?

What is different this year is the number of teams who are desperate for arms, and the amount of money they have to throw at them. A year ago, the Yankees were expecting more from Randy Johnson, the Mets counted on a Cy Young-caliber season from Pedro Martinez, and the Cubs still had hopes of a Mark Prior/Kerry Wood/Carlos Zambrano triumverate. (You know, all at the same time.) With those hopes dashed, there are more teams with money to spend and holes to fill.

It’s true that Matsuzaka’s posting fee can’t be directly translated into an equivalent salary for another free agent. After all, if they sign him, the Red Sox will doubtless reap some financial gains from a presence in Japan. And because the posting fee doesn’t count toward total payroll when luxury taxes are levied, a team like the Red Sox can spend more freely without having to send extra money Bud Selig’s way. But regardless of how you break down the posting fee, it would appear that the at least a couple of teams view Matsuzaka as a $20, perhaps $23-25 million per year pitcher. Zito and Schmidt may have question marks, but nobody on the market comes with as many as Matsuzaka has.

The Red Sox

Assuming that Boston signs Matsuzaka, they go from having a high-potential, high-variance rotation to one with spectacular potential and even greater variance. Matsuzaka may be a better bet than anyone else on the market, but he’s also a pitcher with no MLB experience being thrust into the highest-offense division in baseball.

Oh, and did I mention he’s had elbow problems?

I have little doubt that, so long as he’s healthy, Matsuzaka will put together an exemplary MLB career; perhaps he’ll even have a Cy Young-caliber season or two over the length of his first contract. I’m even fairly confident that he’ll stay healthy. But before we decide which model Red Sox cap Matsuzaka will wear on his plaque in Cooperstown, he’ll have to pitch well this year.

He will undoubtedly have to make some adjustments upon arriving in the US—the question is how much those will affect him, and for how long. The first high-impact Japanese pitcher in MLB, Hideo Nomo, wasn’t fazed at all by the transition. In his age 26 “rookie” season, he posted the best ERA of his career with great peripherals over 191.3 innings. After Nomo, though, there are warning signs.

Hideki Irabu—admittedly, no Matsuzaka—had a dreadful partial season in 1997 before settling in as a league-average starter in ’98 and ’99. Kaz Sasaki—again, not a great comp, but perhaps instructive—had a solid season in his first year as Seattle’s closer, but walked more than twice as many batters as he did in his sophomore campaign. Kaz Ishii was also a little better in his second MLB season.

In other words, the Red Sox made what will be, hands down, the biggest gamble of the offseason. Any big-dollar multiyear deal is a gamble, certainly, but those types of risks have become mundane; big-market teams know by now that for every four or five players they sign to a 3-plus year contract, one or two of them will be dead weight by the final season. On the high end, Matsuzaka is someone a team just can’t buy, with prospects or lucre. (That is, until Johan Santana hits the market after the 2008 season.) On the low end, he could blow his arm out with a pre-existing, uninsurable injury, or he could turn out to be mediocre.

As has become standard in the last few seasons, the Red Sox front office has taken a huge first step toward another offseason that will allow analysts to predict anything from 85 to 110 wins.

Japanese Baseball

Matsuzaka isn’t the highest-profile player ever to come to the US from Japan, but a $50 million posting fee certainly changes the complexion of player transactions. The previous high was $13 million for Ichiro Suzuki, and rumor has it that Seattle didn’t even pay that much.

Part of what makes Matsuzaka worth such a substantial fee is his age. Generally, 26-year-old ace pitchers are locked up, and even a fire sale can’t pry them from their team. Essentially, the posting system brings back the pre-farm system days when premium minor league talent went to the highest bidder. In those days, parting with a star such as Lefty Grove would be the difference between a break-even season and a spectacularly profitable one for a minor league club.

Paydays worth $50 million will obviously be few and far between, but the eye-popping amount must at least suggest a different way of doing business to teams in Japan’s NPB. For instance, Yomiuri never received any money for losing Hideki Matsui; imagine, if Matsui’s equivalent were posted at age 28, what he might garner on this year’s market. What about age 26? How about age 22, after his first year putting up a 1.000 OPS?

I don’t pretend to know the likelihood of the NPB willingly turning itself into a combine for the American majors. I suspect it’s low. But so long as Japan’s youth remains baseball crazed and the country turns out several potential superstars a decade, the posting system offers a cash cow that may now be much more difficult to ignore.

Usually, by the end of a hyper news cycle like this one, I’m ready to move on and forget about it. Surely ESPN will focus on other things once Matsuzaka is signed or unsigned on December 15. But with so many storylines just waiting to play out, it feels like things are just now getting interesting.

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