Hiroki Kuroda has big decisions ahead
PHOENIX -- Hiroki Kuroda made a fateful decision in the bottom of the second inning Saturday night, opting to throw a fastball on a full count to Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Brandon Allen. It stayed over the middle of the plate, Allen slammed it deep into the right-field stands for a three-run homer, and the Los Angeles Dodgers lost 3-2 to the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
In the coming weeks and months, Kuroda will make a series of far bigger decisions, ones that will determine the future of his baseball career.
Almost four years after walking away from a successful, 11-year career in his native Japan and choosing the Dodgers over three other major league clubs, Kuroda would appear to be sitting pretty, his 6-11 record notwithstanding.
There is pending free agency in the fall, which, coupled with the fact he is pitching for a club that can't see contention with a high-powered telescope, would seem to create the likelihood he will be traded sometime in the next couple of weeks. There is plenty of interest by other (read: contending) clubs, including the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers. And there is a full no-trade clause in his contract, allowing Kuroda to essentially plot his own course as far as the rest of 2011 is concerned.
But there also are all those decisions. And decisions can be a tremendous burden when they carry such monumental repercussions.
"At this point, I haven't heard anything," Kuroda said through an interpreter. "As long as I'm wearing a Dodgers uniform, I'm playing for this team and I'm playing to win."
After completing his customary group interview with the American media, Kuroda spoke with a handful of reporters from Japan, one of whom later said Kuroda was just as noncommittal with them. Kuroda says he hasn't discussed any scenarios with Steve Hilliard, his agent, and he claims he hasn't even thought about which teams he might be willing to waive his no-trade rights for.
The other decisions, of course, will come after the season. Kuroda's four-year record with the Dodgers is an unspectacular 34-41, but that belies a fairly stellar 3.51 ERA, and if Kuroda decides to stay in the U.S., there will be a market for him. The question is, will it be a market that suits him?
When Kuroda originally came stateside, he was heavily pursued by the Diamondbacks, the Seattle Mariners and the Kansas City Royals. At least two of those teams offered him four-year deals, but Kuroda opted for the three-year, $35.3 million offer from the Dodgers, at least in part because he was 32 and wasn't sure he wanted to commit to pitching in the U.S. for any longer than that. When he faced free agency last winter, he signed only a one-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers, largely for the same reason.
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Those close to Kuroda say he misses Japan, but that it wouldn't really look good if he were to return to his homeland to pitch for a salary far less than the almost $12 million he has averaged in his four seasons here. His former club, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, likely would welcome him back with open arms, but they are a small-market team -- one colleague in the Japanese media told me when Kuroda first arrived in 2008 that the Carp are "like the Kansas City Royals" -- so they presumably would be unlikely to offer Kuroda anything close to what he has been making or what he would stand to make in 2012 if he were to stay.
Staying is one thing. Staying with the Dodgers, whose ownership mess might not be straightened out until long after Kuroda's immediate future has been decided, is another.
But before the Dodgers can make a run at re-signing Kuroda, they have to figure out whether they want to keep him now. Sources close to the team say the Dodgers would consider dealing him for a package of young players or prospects that would help them down the road, but a major obstacle to doing so would be the lack of alternatives for Kuroda's rotation spot.
Right now, the Dodgers (42-52) have only one starting pitcher in their system they could call on, and that is right-hander John Ely, a middling prospect who has proved in his previous big league stints that he isn't quite ready for the majors. The Dodgers also have 68 games remaining, and somebody will have to pitch every fifth day if they trade Kuroda, so general manager Ned Colletti figures to face some big decisions soon, too.
The first one is whether to sell off players at the July 31 trading deadline. That would seem like a no-brainer, given that the Dodgers are mired in fourth place in the National League West, 11½ games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants. But Colletti's personality, as well as his history of working in front offices of contending clubs, doesn't allow him to part easily with hope.
As such, he doesn't figure to part easily with Kuroda, either.
What we saw in Kuroda's latest start was another example of what we had seen so many times already this year, a strong performance that went for naught because of a lack of run support. But we also saw the essence of what makes this pitcher an asset to a staff. By his own admission, Kuroda didn't have his best stuff, and he was in constant trouble through the first four innings. But he never stopped fighting, and retired the final nine batters he faced on an evening when he struck out seven batters without issuing a walk and gave the Dodgers every chance to win.
Or, he would have given them every chance to win if they weren't saddled with such a punchless lineup, but you've read that story already.
This is the Kuroda we have grown accustomed to seeing. And if we don't see him anymore after July 31, the Dodgers will be worse off for it.
As for whether Kuroda will be worse off, well, that is a decision only he ultimately can make. And that is a big decision indeed.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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