Mets taking big chance on Matsui

Despite his hype, it was still a questionable move by the Mets to sign Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui.

Originally Published: December 8, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

For all the hype -- and the $6.7 million per season -- there should be at least a bit of doubt when it comes to Kazuo Matsui's future performance. Here's what Richard Lally sent me on this subject ...

    Rob, have you heard much about Kaz Matsui from anyone who has seen him play much? There is currently so much being written about his high ceiling, yet most of it seems to be wild speculation once you study his lifetime stats. His walk totals are unimpressive, one every 12 at-bats or so, and he has struck out 236 times in the last two seasons for a 2-1 K-to-BB ratio. He is awfully small and will undoubtedly suffer a power decline.

    Kazuo Matsui
    Shortstop Kazuo Matsui must adapt to a 162-game schedule.

    Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are the only two Japanese League hitters we have to compare him to, so I crunched their Japanese League and major league stats and discovered this:

    Hideki Matsui lost six percent from his career batting average, 15 percent off his on-base percentage, and 26 percent off his slugging average making the transition to American baseball.

    Suzuki suffered declines of 10 percent in batting average, 15 percent in OBP, 16 percent in slugging average.

    Kaz Matsui's lifetime stats strongly suggest he is not as good a hitter as either of these players. His lifetime numbers in the JPL are .309 BA, .362 OBP, .486 slugging. Laudable for a shortstop. But if he suffers a decline equal to the average decline of Godzilla and Ichiro, we can expect MLB numbers like this: .275, a below-average .326 OBP, and a .390 slugging average.

    Much has been made of Kaz's speed, with numerous writers citing that he once stole 62 bases. Well, he reached that total in 1997 and has not come close since. He stole 13 last year. His speed numbers have dropped as his home runs have increased. Makes me wonder if he added bulk and lost speed.

    I think teams should be leery of overpaying for this guy. Your thoughts?

    -- R.L.

Well, of course you never want to overpay anybody. And it's certainly true that Matsui's vaunted speed seems to have either disappeared or gone into hibernation. While it's true that he's twice led the Pacific League in steals, he's not likely to lead the National League. From 1996 through '98, Matsui stole 155 bases. But in the five seasons since, he's swiped only 130. That's 26 per season, and is generous because (as Lally notes), he stole 13 in 2003 (and was caught 10 times!).

That said, if we're going to focus on Matsui's recent running numbers, then we have to focus on his recent hitting numbers, too. And as he's gotten slower (or perhaps just been more restrained on the bases), he's gotten a lot stronger. In those same three seasons in which he stole 155 bases, Matsui hit only 17 home runs. But in the five seasons since, he's hit 131 homers, including 69 over the last two seasons.

I think Richard is pretty close on Matsui's batting average (.275) and on-base percentage (.326), especially looking two or three seasons ahead. But I do think he'll show enough power to post a slugging percentage in the .450 range. Granted, that's not based on any sort of sophisticated translation system, but Matsui slugged .583 over the last two seasons, and he just turned 28.

That said, teams should be leery, because predicting what an experienced Japanese player will do upon reaching these shores is far, far from an exact science. There were smart people who thought they had a handle on it, but the method hasn't worked well for either Ichiro or Godzilla, both of whom hit significantly fewer home runs and drew significantly fewer walks than expected. But if Kazuo Matsui hits only half as many home runs in 2004 as he did in 2002 and 2003, he'll still be one of the best shortstops in the National League.

Reyes
Reyes

But does he belong with the Mets? Their best young player is Jose Reyes ... a shortstop with supposed Gold Glove talent. Nevertheless, the Mets are so impressed with Matsui's defense that they're reportedly going to shift Reyes to second base. Now, it's fine to have two Gold Glove shortstops in the middle of the infield, but it's a waste of talent. If Reyes can play shortstop, he should play shortstop because that's where he would have the most value. Of course, if the Mets win a division title within the next few seasons, then all (or most) is forgiven. But they're not doing what I would do.

********

The offseason is still relatively young, but at this moment I would have to suggest that the most, shall we say, "interesting" news comes out of San Francisco, where on Sunday the Giants signed Michael Tucker. For two years.

Recently, I think I mentioned somewhere that the Royals' Kauffman Stadium has quietly become the best hitter's park in the American League, and by a fair piece. Well, nobody's benefited more than Tucker. In his two seasons at "The K," Tucker's been a damn good hitter: .391 on-base percentage, .531 slugging percentage.

But on the road, Tucker's been Ray Oyler with some pop: .195 batting average, .267 OBP, .311 slugging.

Granted, Tucker's not that bad. Nobody with a functional pair of eyes and a complete set of appendages is that bad. But Tucker's going from the best hitter's park in the American League to one of the worst in the National ... what do you think is going to happen next?

Next year, the Giants will presumably feature an outfield consisting of Barry Bonds (39 years old) in left, Marquis Grissom (36) in center, and Michael Tucker and Jeffrey Hammonds (both in their early 30s) in right. Theoretically, if not for Tucker's road problems and Hammonds' injury problems, a Tucker/Hammonds platoon could be decent enough. But there's a real chance for disaster here, especially if Grissom or Bonds shows his age (hey, it's going to happen eventually).

But wait, it gets worse. Because 1) Tucker is a "Type B" free agent, and 2) the Giants signed Tucker on Sunday rather than Monday, they forfeited their first-round pick in the 2004 draft (to the Royals, or another team if the Giants sign another free agent.

Michael Tucker
Outfielder
San Francisco Giants
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
G R HR RBI OBP AVG
104 61 13 55 .331 .262

Is two years of Michael Tucker (not to mention a few million dollars) worth a first-round draft pick? Probably not. But the Giants don't care. They don't like draft picks. A year ago, they signed Ray Durham hours before the A's were officially not going to offer arbitration, thus forfeiting draft picks. Why? Because they don't like to spend the money on first-round picks. Or at least not a lot of them at once. The Giants did have a first-round pick last summer, because Jeff Kent signed with the Astros. But if they hadn't signed Durham, they'd have had two first-round picks.

Some of you are wondering, if the Giants don't want a first-round draft pick, why don't they trade it to somebody who does? It's a good question, and I only wish the answer were as good. But the answer is, "They can't." They're not allowed to.

Why not? The idea, I think, is that if you let teams trade draft picks, they'll trade their future for their present, and perhaps foolishly. To which most reasonable persons should reply, "So what?" There are many, many ways in which an organization can shoot itself in the foot. What makes this one so special? What's more, if a team would be stupid enough to trade draft picks for crummy players, wouldn't it also be stupid enough to draft crummy players?

The offseason hasn't been completely unkind to the Giants. They picked up A.J. Pierzynski, who's one of the half-dozen best catchers in the majors.

But man, the Giants are looking at a lineup that includes Neifi Perez, Michael Tucker, and a few other has-beens who were not cast off by the Royals. As things stand now, the Giants will be hard-pressed to win 85 games next year. Then again, 85 games might be all it takes to win the NL West.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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