Waiting for Matsuzaka

Originally Published: November 29, 2004
By Masayoshi Niwa | Special to ESPN.com

Big league hitters can breathe a sigh of relief. Daisuke Matsuzaka isn't eligible for free agency for another three years. Maybe.

The 24-year-old right-hander is considered the best pitcher in Japan. Earlier this month in the U.S.-Japan All-Star series, Matsuzaka tossed a complete-game five-hitter for a 5-1 victory in Sapporo. The Seibu Lions' ace did not allow a hit until the fifth inning, and retired 10 of the final 11 MLB hitters to become the first pitcher in the series to toss a complete game.

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Daisuke Matsuzaka posted a 2.90 ERA for the Seibu Lions last season.

"Without question he could pitch in the major leagues," U.S. manager Bruce Bochy said after the game. "He has four major league pitches, and has a good idea of what he's doing on the mound. It's hard to compare him to anybody because of his unique delivery."

While the Class of 2005 from Japan isn't expected to produce an impact player, many are waiting for Matsuzaka to make his way to a big league club.

"I would definitely like to play in the majors," Matsuzaka said after the game. "I wanted to show what I could do."

Matsuzaka has to play three more seasons in Japan to become a free agent. However, the Japan Times' Web site reported Kokudo Corp. has decided to sell the Seibu Lions. It's possible Matsuzaka could reach the majors sooner through the posting system in Japan.

Under the current rule, if a Japanese player wants to make the move to the majors before qualifying for free agency, the player is put up for auction under the posting system. If Matsuzaka doesn't care which major league team gets his exclusive negotiating rights, he may leave Japan after the next season. Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhisa Ishii used the same method to go to the majors.

Matsuzaka was the winning pitcher in Japan's 6-3 victory over Cuba in the preliminary round of the Athens Olympics.

He also played a key role in helping the Seibu Lions win the Japan Series this year.

Cubs outfielder Moises Alou, who singled off Matsuzaka in the sixth inning of the game in which Matsuzaka tossed a complete game, was impressed with the hard-throwing right-hander.

"He pitched really well,'' Alou told the Associated Press. "I was lucky to hit a fastball right down the middle.''

Two other pitchers, Koji Uehara (Yomiuri Giants) and Kei Igawa (Hanshin Tigers) also impressed against the major leaguers.

Uehara and Igawa have publicly expressed their desire to go the majors. However, just like Matsuzaka, they have to play more than three seasons to become free agents.

Can they wait? Well, maybe not. It is believed they may also use the posting system to get out of Japan sooner.

While the Class of 2005 from Japan isn't as strong as recent years, three position players who announced they would like to go the majors have the potential to bring some impact. They are:

Tadahito Iguchi (Daiei Hawks): A second baseman with tremendous speed. He stole 42 bases in 2003 and it was his second stolen base title. His fielding would also be above average. However, he has been playing on artificial turf. He could struggle on natural grass, just like Kaz Matsui did wth the Mets.

He has some power, but he will mainly be the type of player who hits between the gaps. He cares about on-base percentage (his OBP for 2003 season was .438) more than hits and home runs, so he could transfer from the middle of the lineup to the leadoff spot.

His career batting average is .271 with 149 home runs and 507 RBI. He's played for the Daiei Hawks for eight seasons.

Norihiro Nakamura (Kintetsu Buffaloes): Two years ago, he was almost about to wear the Mets' uniform. According to some reports, they had an agreement in principle, but Nakamura changed his mind after successfully completing a physical. It is believed the Mets had agreed on a two-year, $7 million contract for Nakamura, but Nakamura signed with his former team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, for $30 million over five years.

He is not a free agent, so he will have to go to the majors by the posting system. It is hard to guess who will join the money game, but his salary will most likely be less than a two-year, $7 million deal. His offensive stats in the past two seasons declined due to injuries.

He still has tremendous power, but at the same time he is a five-time golden glove winner. His career batting average is .267 with 307 home runs and 916 RBI. He's played for the Kintetsu Buffaloes for 13 seasons.

Toshihisa Nishi (Yomiuri Giants): A second baseman with great range, and a four-time golden glove winner. Although he had a career high 28 home runs this season, he is recognized as one of the smartest leadoff hitters in Japan. He played in the Japan-U.S. All-Star exhibition games, but he batted just .118 (2-for-17).

He said before the series, "I would like to show my ability at this series." But he also said, "If no major teams offer more than $1 million, I will stay here, in Japan." It is hard to guess how many teams could make an offer of more than $1 million for Nishi, who is 33 years old, and a career .274 hitter. However, if a team signs Nishi for $1 million, he could be a bargain deal.

His career average is .274 with 121 home runs and 389 RBI. He's played for the Yomiuri Giants for nine seasons.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Masayoshi Niwa lives in Seattle and covers baseball for Sports Yeah! magazine, Major.jp, Nikkei Shinbun, which are all based in Tokyo.