Matsuzaka won't come cheap

Originally Published: November 1, 2006
By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com

TOKYO -- Japan's premier pitcher is headed toward a 2007 premiere in the majors.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic, will go on the block Thursday when the Seibu Lions file to auction his negotiating rights to the highest bidder.

Teams will have four days to submit a sealed bid for Matsuzaka, who possesses a dizzying assortment of quality pitches with a pair of sliders, circle change, forkball, cutter, curve and a 95-mph fastball.

Matsuzaka's ability is a no-brainer to new Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who is in Tokyo managing a touring team of major league All-Stars.

"He's going to be very successful," said Bochy, who witnessed Matsuzaka mowing down a string of the majors' best hitters two years earlier.

"His stuff is too good not to be successful."

The pitcher was equally confident at the news conference announcing the team's decision to let him leave.

"When I first considered the possibility of being posted, I thought I would have to raise my game a lot," Matsuzaka said. "But now more than ever, I have full confidence I will succeed."

Matsuzaka's dream has been 16 years in the making.

"About the time I was 10, I remember thinking about this country called America and thinking of how there was this great gap between it and Japan," Matsuzaka said. "I could understand the baseball there was of the highest quality. I don't know if I can say that gap has grown smaller or not, but in case, I want to give it a go."

The Lions ace followed his WBC heroics with his best season: a 17-5 record and a 2.13 ERA. Although his stuff was perhaps better the year before the WBC disrupted his normal training schedule, there is little question that Matsuzaka's composure has continued to develop.

The big question about the right-hander is not whether he has the heart or the arm to pitch in the majors but how long sports medicine can keep him in the rotation.

Matsuzaka climbed to fame in the elbow- and shoulder-wrenching crucible of Japan's biggest sporting event, the annual high school tournaments held at Koshien Stadium. As an 18-year-old, he threw an incredible numbers of pitches, sometimes without a rest day, in leading Yokohama High School to the spring invitational and national summer titles at Koshien.

As a pro, he worked out of a rotation, but his first manager was an old-school former ace and wanted Matsuzaka to go the distance whenever possible. With the youngster's control a problem early, this meant some gruelingly high pitch counts.

Matsuzaka, who has worked steadily to build up his frame, has suffered just one injury-hit season. A sore elbow sidelined him for a month early in 2002, and he hurt his thigh upon his midseason return, keeping him out of the rotation until the last game of the regular season.

Since then, his pitch counts have dropped to normal levels and Matsuzaka has become a more complete pitcher. Although control was once an issue, he walked just 34 batters this season in 186 1/3 innings and threw as many as 140 pitches only twice in 2006.

When a strikeout is called for, he will summon his best fastball, but he has become content to generate easy outs to his fielders.

"Though it has been two years since I announced my decision that I want to go, it is something I have aspired to for a long time," he said. "I have been practicing my hardest and playing my best ball all the time so that someday this day would come. And now that it has come and I am turning this new page, I have to say I am really happy."

The pitcher knows several teams will be interested in him but showed no preference. Under the posting system rules, he can negotiate only with the highest-bidding team.

"Of course, I would prefer to go to a team with a shot at a pennant," he said. "The thing that matters most is that I play for a team that places a high value on what I bring."

Because Matsuzaka undoubtedly will sign with the high bidder -- rather than return to the Lions -- the only question is what team is willing to spend the big money needed to bring Japan's biggest star to the majors.

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.