On Sunday the A's finished their third week of talks with Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, a 29-year-old righthander whom they hope to add to a terrific young rotation. Last month Oakland won exclusive negotiating rights to Iwakuma for a 30-day period in a blind bidding process; it will reportedly pay the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan's Pacific League $19 million should they sign him. If the two sides can't reach an agreement by Dec. 7—Iwakuma, who has a 3.32 ERA in 10 seasons in the Japanese majors, reportedly wants a deal worth around $40 million over four years; the team's best offer so far is $15.25 million—the A's will pay nothing, and Iwakuma will remain in Japan for 2011.
This is an article from the Dec. 6, 2010 issue
Iwakuma would be a significant signing for the usually frugal A's, though the team might be better off letting him slip through their fingers. The track record of Japanese starters on this side of the Pacific is mixed, and those coming over through the posting system—created in 1998 so Japanese teams receive compensation when players who aren't free agents jump to the U.S.—have for the most part been expensive failures. Lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii, who signed with the Dodgers in 2002, cost $24 million in posting fees and salary and produced a 4.44 ERA over four seasons for Los Angeles and the Mets. Southpaw Kei Igawa was brought over by the Yankees for $46 million in 2006, including a $26 million posting fee, and has thrown just 71 2/3 major league innings. Most famously, the Red Sox paid a posting fee of $51 million for the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka in '06, gave him a six-year, $52 million deal and have been largely disappointed since. In three of his four U.S. seasons, Matsuzaka has had an ERA of 4.40 or higher.
Some Japanese pitchers have found success in the U.S., most notably starter Hideo Nomo in the mid-1990s, but generally they have been relievers who came here as free agents. Last season Takashi Saito (Braves), Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers), Koji Uehara (Orioles) and Hisanori Takahashi (Mets) were all solid contributors; none reached the majors before turning 32. In fact, Japanese pitchers who have jumped here in their 30s have overall performed much better than those who came sooner.
The posting process exacerbates the risk for U.S. teams, who have to pay twice to sign a player. And getting accurate reads on Japanese hurlers has proved to be problematic. For example, no pitcher was as impressive to scouts as Matsuzaka was in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. But he has failed to adapt to the "take and rake" style of U.S. hitters, walking 4.3 per nine innings. Ishii and Igawa were desired for their power arms, but both have career strikeout rates here below 7.0 per nine.
The Iwakuma affair will be interesting, but a bigger story is on the horizon. Yu Darvish, a 24-year-old righthander who has had an ERA below 2.00 in his last four seasons, may be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters next winter. Darvish, who is arguably more impressive to scouts than Matsuzaka was, would touch off a bidding war; the total investment to sign him will run well past the $103 million the Red Sox spent on Matsuzaka. No matter his talent, that's a risky bet to make given the track record here of his countrymen.
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The Twins are also trying to get into the import business: Last week they won the negotiating rights to Chiba Lotte Marines shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka for a $5 million posting fee. Japanese position players haven't been plentiful in the U.S., but their performance tends to be more predictable. They have largely retained their ability to hit for average and their defensive skill, while losing whatever power they had in Japan. (Hideki Matsui is the only Japanese player to hit for power here.) Nishioka, a switch-hitter who won a batting title last season, is comparable to the Orioles' Brian Roberts; he's a middle infielder who can hit second. The pursuit of Nishioka is another reminder that the Twins are low-budget no longer. Their 2011 payroll will top $100 million.