Archive for December 2013

Masahiro Tanaka Coming to America(?)

December 25, 2013

Numerous media sources are reporting that the Rakuten Golden Eagles will indeed post Masahiro Tanaka in spite of the new posting agreement/system which will cost the team as much as $50 million in posting fees.  It has not yet been announced by Rakuten that Tanaka will be posted, so there’s still the chance that the media reports are a lot of wishful thinking, but at least it now seems much more likely than not that Tanaka will be posted.

With Rakuten only getting $20 million and MLB only having to pony up said $20 million to negotiate with Tanaka, the odds are good that Tanaka will command a contract around $100 million.  There’s always a question about how a pitcher coming from Japan or South Korea or Cuba will do when entering the MLB system, and there’s always the risk that a pitcher’s arm will suddenly give out.  However, all indications are that Tanaka is the real deal.

Certainly, MLB teams thinks so.  Teams have been waiting on Tanaka before signing a huge number of middle-of-the-rotations starters including Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Bronson Arroyo, Ubaldo Jimenez and A. J. Burnett.  The fact that so many solid starters have not yet signed is an extremely strong indication that many teams think Tanaka is the cream of the crop and are waiting to see what his available does to the market.

Further, Tanaka’s NPB numbers are startlingly good and highly comparable to Yu Darvish’s.  Last season, Hyun-jin Ryu proved the Dodgers investment of $60 million+ was no mistake — Tanaka’s NPB numbers are far better than Ryu’s were in South Korea’s KBO, and NPB is about as much better than the KBO as MLB is better than NPB.

The only knock on Tanaka is that he is probably not as good as Yu Darvish.  But how many pitchers are?  I have no doubt that if a draft were conducted today for all major league players by all major league teams, Darvish would be among the first five starting pitchers selected.  Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez might get picked before Darvish, but anyone else? Probably not.

It’s also worth noting that Tanaka’s NPB stats are distinctly better than Japan’s first $100 million man Daisuke Matsuzaka.  Any number of media reports and articles now refer to Dice-K as a “flop” and a “failure,” but an awful lot of that is the revisionist history and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-ism so common to sports writing and fandom.  Two years into Matsuzaka’s tenure with the Red Sox, when he was coming off an 18-3 season, had a major league record of 33-15 and had a World Series win, no one thought the BoSox had made a mistake.

In his third season with the Red Sox, Dice-K’s arm gave out.  How many major league starters who have thrown a lot of innings year after year have their arms give out at some point?  More than half, most likely.  The ones who don’t frequently end up in the Hall of Fame.  The upshot is that Matsuzaka was worth the $103 million gamble at the time it was made.

Tanaka’s work loads in Japan were fairly high, although he topped 200 innings pitched only twice (226.1 IP in 2011 and 212 last season).  Yu Darvish topped 200 IP four times in his NPB career, but only in his last season did he top 210 (232 IP in 2011).  Matsuzaka only did it twice, but he was worked hard in those two seasons(240.1 IP in 2001 — not surprisingly, he was hurt the next season — and 215 IP in 2005, his penultimate season in Japan).  To date, Tanaka has handled his NPB workloads pretty well, but like both Darvish and Matsuzaka he’s thrown a lot of innings before the age of 25.

It Would Never Happen Here

December 24, 2013

It was announced today that catcher Shinnosuke Abe, probably the best position player in Japan’s NPB, re-signed with the Yomiuri Giants on a two-year deal that will pay him 600 million yen (approximately $5.76 million) in 2014.  This represents a raise of 30 million yen ($290,000) from 2013 and makes Abe once again the highest paid player in NPB.

What is of particular interest is that Abe reportedly declined a raise of 50 million yen, which would have made him the highest paid player in Yomiuri Giants’ history (Hideki Matsui was paid 610 million yen back in 2002), because he allegedly felt he was not yet ready for that honor.  Abe has been a thirteen-season starter for the Giants, batting .290 for his career and blasting 327 home runs.  Yomiuri has won three Japan Series during Abe’s tenure, but Abe is reportedly disappointed in his performance this post-season, when the Giants lost a taught seven-game Japan Series to the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Can you imagine a major league player turning down an offer to make him the highest paid player in team history?  I certainly can’t.  It says a lot about the differences between Japanese and American baseball and society.

I’m fairly sure that there is something more here than appears at first blush.  First of all, only days earlier Abe was quoted as saying that he wants to remain a Yomiuri Giant for his entire professional career.  I also strongly suspect that Abe will be paid at least 620 million yen in the second year of his two-year deal, when he will be age 36.  Pushing the record salary back to the second year of the two-year deal allows both the Giants and Abe to make the point that they are disappointed they did not win the Japan Series this year and will do everything possible to win it all in 2014.

In any event, Abe becomes only the third player in NPB history to officially make 600 million yen in a season.  Aside from Godzilla, relief ace Kazuhiro Sasaki made 650 million yen in each of 2004 and 2005 (it turned out to be a very poor investment by the Yokohama Bay Stars as Sasaki pitched in only 34 games over the two seasons).

In a not-very-closely-related note, Korean slugger Dae-ho (“Big Boy”) Lee reportedly reached agreement on a three-year 1.45 billion yen ($13.92 million) contract with the Softbank Hawks.  The third year is a player option, so Lee could elect to renegotiate if he plays great over the first two seasons.  Also, incentives bring the possible value of the contract up over 2 billion yen ($19.2 billion).

This is the largest contract ever given to a Korean player in NPB and quite likely the largest contract ever given to any foreign player in NPB.  However, on an annual basis Seung-yeop Lee  and Chang-yong Lim may have been paid as much or more.  At any rate, it looks as if Lee made the right choice to stay in NPB rather than trying his fortunes in MLB.

San Francisco Giants Lose LHP Eric Surkamp

December 23, 2013

The Giants lost young lefty Eric Surkamp today to a waiver claim by the Chicago White Sox.  The Giants designated Surkamp for assignment last week in order to free up a spot on the 40-man roster for recent free agent signee Mike Morse.  I, for one, am a little sad to see Surkamp go.

Surkamp looked promising a couple of years ago, when he got six starts for the Giants at age 23. He wasn’t particularly effective, but he looked like someone who could help the team as a fifth starter in the fairly near future.  Instead, he blew out his elbow tendon and had Tommy John surgery in late July of 2012.

Surkamp came back from the surgery last year and looked quite good at AAA Fresno, posting a 2.78 ERA across 11 starts and 78.1 innings pitched with solid ratios.  It certainly put him back in the mix with Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit for the Giants’ fifth starting slot in 2014.  Given that both Vogelsong and Petit are big question marks going into 2014, it would have been nice to have at least one more viable candidate around.  The Giants certainly have better pitching prospects in their system than Surkamp, but they’re all a long way from being major-league-ready.

The irony is the Giants just freed up a roster spot by selling Brett Pill‘s rights to the Kia Tigers of South Korea’s KBO.  Unfortunately, the timing was such that the Giants had to designate Surkamp before the Pill sale was finalized.  In fact, as of this moment the Giants’ website still lists Pill on the 40-man roster, meaning the team can claim somebody else off of waivers when the roster space officially opens.

For what it’s worth, the Giants have already claimed two young pitchers off waivers earlier this off-season, Erik Cordier and Jose De Paula.  Cordier is a big right-hander with a big fastball (it reportedly sometimes reaches 100 mph) but not enough command. The Giants are reportedly hoping they can make some adjustments with his mechanics and turn him into a serviceable major league reliever.

De Paula is a smallish lefty who the Padres gave up on after a fairly decent half season (14 starts) in AA ball last year.  De Paula missed all of the 2012 season with what one website says were “visa issues”, meaning De Paula may be older than his reported age 23.

Cody Ransom Sighting

December 20, 2013

One of my favorite players Cody Ransom will be slugging it out in Japan next season.  He just signed a one-year deal with the Seibu Lions for $900,000.

It will be interesting to see what kind of year Ransom has next season at age 38.  Two things seem relatively certain: he’ll strike out a whole lot and he’ll hit for power if he gets the playing time.

As I see it, the best case scenario for Ransom and the Lions is a season much like Andruw Jones‘ 2013 season at age 36 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles.  Jones batted only .243 and struck out 164 times in 478 at-bats, but he also blasted 26 home runs and walked or was hit by pitch a whopping 120 times.

On the subject of this kind of player, the Softbank Hawks are deciding whether to bring Brian LaHair back for another season or release him and eat the remaining 180 million yen ($1.72 million).  Just as he did for the Cubs in 2012, LaHair got off to a hot start in Japan last season, but then his numbers fell down, down, down as NPB teams learned that he can’t hit left-handed pitching to save his life.

LaHair finished the 2013 season with a .230 batting average and 121 strikeouts in 348 at-bats.  However, he also accrued 16 HRs, 36 extra base hits and 39 walks, so his season wasn’t a total failure.

If it was up to me, I’d bring LaHair back for one more season and just make sure he rides the pine against left-handed pitchers.  He’ll probably hit better against NPB righties now that he has a year of experience under his belt, and 180 million yen is a lot of money for an NPB team swallow, although the Hawks are one of the few teams that could afford to do so.

As a general rule, Japanese teams give up on foreign players much to too quickly, so I’m always rooting for foreign players to get more time to show they can make the adjustments to be successful there.

Brett Pill Going to South Korea?

December 20, 2013 reports that the San Francisco Giants reached a deal with the Korean Baseball Organization’s (“KBO”) Kia Tigers to sell 1B/LF Brett Pill‘s rights for $500,000.  However, the Kia Tigers and Pill have not yet reached agreement on a possible contract.

As most serious Giants’ fans probably know, Pill is a classic 4-A player.  He’s a good right-handed hitter who developed late and with not quite enough power or walks to be a successful major leaguer.  Over the last three seasons, he’s accumulated 259 major league plate appearances with an overall .233/.279./404 line.  He turned 29 last September.

If Pill can make the adjustments to playing in Asia quickly, he’ll hit for average and power.  He reminds me a lot of Craig Brazell who has had a successful career in Japan’s NPB the last five years.  Brazell is a left-handed hitter and has a little more power and a slightly lower on-base percentage, but otherwise they provide the same kind of offensive production.

Pill apparently drew some interest from other major league organizations this off-season, but not the kind that resulted in significant trade offers.  Pill’s best career options are definitely in Asia, given his age and talent level/skill set.  As someone who’s been watching Pill the last few years in the Giants’ organization, I’m hoping Kia convinces him to play in the KBO and he gets off to a good start there so he can have a successful/financially rewarding career.

Remembering Tony Solaita

December 19, 2013

The SK Wyverns of South Korea’s KBO signed former Oriole and Ray Luke Scott today for a reported $300,000, but probably more like $1.3 million (the KBO has a $300,000 cap on what first-year foreign players can be paid, but few, if any, KBO teams actually honor the cap).  Scott hit .241 with a .741 OPS last year in 91 games with the Rays, so he’s still a legitimate major leaguer and probably could have caught on with an MLB team as a left-handed pinch hitter in 2014.

Scott turns 36 next June, and I think he realizes his professional career is near the end.  As such, he’s probably looking to cash in with one or two more high paying years in the Far East and have some new and exciting experiences in the process.  He’ll be the first player with 100+ home runs in the majors to play in the KBO, and I’m sure he’s being compensated accordingly.

The Scott signing got me thinking of past American players who cashed in on their last few professional seasons by going to Japan’s NPB to play.  You don’t see quite as many of these players as you once did, as NPB has gotten better at recruiting younger players, who if they succeed right away in NPB, will hang around for a few years.  However, Andruw Jones, who played for the Rakuten Golden Eagles this past season at age 36, is one recent example.

Anyway, I got to thinking about Reggie Smith, who played his last two seasons with the Yomiuri Giants at ages 38 and 39 in the early 1980’s and is featured heavily in Warren Cromartie‘s great book Slugging It Out in Japan.  I looked Reggie up on japan baseball daily’s data warehouse, which contains stats for all NPB players up through 2010 or 2011, and in the process I happened to come across the NPB stats for Tony Solaita.

Solaita was the first Samoan-born player to play in the major leagues.  He came the U.S. at age 9, which is where he learned to play baseball.  He attended high school in Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco.

Solaita was pretty good left-handed hitter, but he didn’t hit lefties too well and probably didn’t play a lot of defense, because he spent his seven year major league career almost exclusively as a platoon player.  He had his best year for the 1975 Royals, when he slugged 16 HRs and had an .884 OPS over 93 games.

When Solaita became a free agent after the 1979 season, he signed a four-year deal with NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters.  In four seasons in Japan, Solaita blasted 155 home runs, reaching the 100 HR mark in the fewest games of any hitter in NPB history.  He also hit four consecutive home runs in a game, and tied an NPB record with five strikeouts in a game.

Solaita is featured prominently in Robert Whiting’s (Whiting was Warren Cromartie’s ghost writer on Cro’s autobiography) You Gotta Have Wa, another great book about Japanese baseball in the 1980’s.  Solaita was the strongest man in the NPB of his day and had a hot temper.  One day when he felt that the Lotte Orions’ (now the Chiba Lotte Marines) pitchers were throwing at him, Solaita brought out his interpreter for a conversation with the Orions’ catcher.  Solaita allegedly said, “Listen, you no-good son of a bitch, if you have a pitcher throw at my head again, I’ll f#$%ing kill you!”  Without missing a beat, the interpreter told the catcher in Japanese, “Mr. Solaita asks that you please not throw at his head any more.  It makes his wife and children worry.”

After his four seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Solaita retired from baseball, having lost the joy of playing the game during his time in Japan.  A few years later, he visited American Samoa for the first time since he’d left as a child, and he liked it so much, he moved his family there, where he opened a butcher shop and began teaching baseball to the local children.  Ultimately, and with the help of his brother, he established youth leagues containing some 600 children.

Sadly, in 1990 at the age of only 43, Solaita was murdered by a young ne’er-d0-well who Solaita had confronted over vandalism to his property.  You can learn more about Tony Solaita at this website dedicated to his memory and from SABR’s biography here.

Miami Marlins Sign Casey McGehee

December 18, 2013

Casey McGehee finally found a taker in his quest to return to MLB after a solid season in Japan’s NPB.  He reportedly signed today with the Marlins for one year at $1.1 million plus performance incentives.

Playing for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013, McGehee hit .292/.376/.515 and was a major contributor to the Golden Eagles’ Japan Series crown.  He made $1.5 million, which likely would have become at least a two-year deal at $2 to 2.5 million per in 2014-2015 had he returned to Japan, so returning to the States wasn’t the best decision financially.

While McGehee’s NPB numbers were good, I’m not convinced they were good enough to translate into MLB success next season.  In 2011 and 2012 at age 28 and 29, McGehee batted .221/.282/.351 in 952 major league plate appearances.  That’s not a small sample size and doesn’t cut it even for a 3Bman who provided above-average defense those two seasons.

The only thing that playing a year in Japan likely gained McGehee, aside from the money, is renewed confidence in his abilities as a baseball player.  While I’m convinced that self-confidence is important to professional success as an athlete (I haven’t done the research, but I strongly suspect that hitters playing at home in great hitters’ parks hit better on the road than players who play at home in terrible hitters’ parks because of the confidence boost they get from their batting success at home), I’m not sure how long that confidence will last once McGehee faces major league pitching again on a daily basis.  In other words, he’ll need to get off to a good start in 2014.

At any rate, the Marlins are always looking to get lucky on low-cost signings, so it’s not particularly surprising they were the team to risk $1.1 million on McGehee’s return.