Lefty has 34-32 career record, 3.36 ERA
BOSTON -- The Red Sox agreed to a contract with a Japanese pitcher -- no, not that one.
In the midst of negotiations with potential ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox agreed Thursday to a $2.5 million, two-year contract with left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima, a deal that includes a $1.75 million team option for 2009.
The Red Sox also moved closer to signing free-agent outfielder J.D. Drew. The sides are in the drafting stages of a $70 million, five-year contract that is likely to announced next week, a person familiar with the talks said on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been finalized.
Boston general manager Theo Epstein envisions Okajima as a setup man and occasional specialist against lefty batters. If the Red Sox sign Matsuzaka, the two pitchers can ease each other's transition to a new country.
Okajima, a 12-year veteran in Japan, was signed "on the merits" of his ability, Epstein said.
"He's going be a valuable member of our bullpen. But, if we do end up with two Japanese pitchers, that certainly would help the assimilation process, not only on the field but also off the field," Epstein said.
Boston has until Dec. 14 to sign Matsuzaka, the ace of the Seibu Lions and MVP of this year's World Baseball Classic. The Red Sox bid $51,111,111 in the posting process for the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka but pay only if they sign him.
Okajima's agent, Anthony Nakanishi, said fans in Japan believe Boston will sign Matsuzaka.
"I'm sure they do," Nakanishi said. "Matsuzaka asked to be posted. It was his desire to come over to the States so I'm sure they can work something out."
Epstein did not comment on the status of talks with Matsuzaka.
Okajima spoke through an interpreter after making an opening remark in English.
"My name is Hideki Okajima, and I like Boston," he said. "Call me Okaji."
He got his first in-person look at Fenway Park before reaching the agreement and visited the seats behind the Green Monster in left field.
"He stood up on the top of the wall and it was a great view," Okajima said through interpreter Masai Takahashi, the trainer for Boston's Double-A team in Portland.
The 30-year-old Okajima, who gets annual salaries of $1.25 million, was 2-2 with a career-low 2.14 ERA and four saves in 55 games last season with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Pacific League. He was traded to the Fighters in March after 11 seasons with the Central League's Yomiuri Giants and then became a free agent after the season.
In 439 Japanese major-league games, he is 34-32 with a 3.36 ERA and 41 saves.
"We have some holes in our bullpen and we're excited to fill one today," Epstein said.
He said Okajima has a very good overhand curveball, a good fastball and a forkball that's tough on right-handed hitters. In 642 innings he has 681 strikeouts with 295 walks.
Craig Shipley, the Red Sox vice president for international scouting, said he began following Okajima last year. Nakanishi said more than five teams expressed interest and several made late offers that were more lucrative, but the Red Sox "consistently stayed on him. They were the first club to make an offer."
Okajima became a free agent after last season and said he never thought about leaving Japan through the posting process. He credited playing for one year under Fighters manager Trey Hillman, an Arlington, Texas, native, with his improvement last season.
Okajima "really felt more comfortable under him than the previous team," the pitcher said through his interpreter.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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