Advertisement
News

A foreign concept

When Boston Red Sox pitching phenomenon Daisuke Matsuzaka makes his first visit to Camden Yards today, he won't see any familiar faces from Japan on the other side of the field.

In fact, Matsuzaka, who isn't scheduled to pitch in the two-game series, would have to burrow deep into the Orioles' farm system to find its lone Asian player: a Double-A pitcher who has yet to throw a ball in an affiliated game.

Advertisement

In an ever-expanding global market, the Orioles are the only team in the American League East without a Far East presence on the 25-man big league roster. The Toronto Blue Jays have one Asian player, the Red Sox have two, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and New York Yankees have three each.

Unto itself, that may not be a concern, but it may be indicative of a bigger problem.

Advertisement

"If you have a club that's consistently putting Latin American players into the big league level, that club doesn't have to spend in every market," said John Stockstill, the Orioles' assistant general manager in charge of professional and international scouting. "For us, it is important to be exploring every market and getting some form of talent from every market because we are not overflowing with talent from any one market."

If the Orioles want to consistently compete in the AL East, they need to be able to build their roster with the best players available, and that means mining the United States, Canada, Latin America, Asia and anywhere else kids are picking up balls and bats.

It's not that the Orioles aren't culturally diverse - they have big leaguers from five countries - and they've done a much better job recently of developing from within, as 15 members of their 40-man roster are homegrown. But of the nine members of their current 40-man roster from countries not subject to major league baseball's amateur draft, only two - pitchers Daniel Cabrera and Sendy Rleal - were originally signed by the Orioles.

And that is a definite handicap in a division in which the Orioles aren't going to outspend the Yankees and Red Sox for major league free agents.

"International scouting is critical," said Andrew Friedman, the second-year executive vice president of the cash-strapped Devil Rays. "When you look at the breakdown of players in the major leagues and their home countries, you see how diverse the game has gotten. And if you don't have a meaningful presence internationally you are cutting off a significant portion of the applicant pool to fill out a roster."

O's could be last

The Orioles aren't alone in failing to tap the ripening baseball landscapes of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Of the 30 major league teams, only 12 have at least one Asian player on their 40-man rosters. Like the Orioles, most teams aren't actively involved in the Pacific Rim, but instead are using existing contacts and/or independent scouts to keep them updated on who looks good and who is, or could become, available.

Still, the Orioles' inability to cull their own worldwide talent is glaring. Several baseball executives said Baltimore was among the worst, and one said "they could be 30th of 30."

Advertisement

The Orioles have one international academy, a dilapidated facility in the Dominican Republic, which is basically a field with two separate barracks a few miles away. Of the Venezuelan players they have discovered, none have made it above Double-A. And the only Asian-born player in the system is Hyuk Son, a 23-year-old South Korean right-hander who was signed as an undrafted free agent last November and is currently on the Double-A Bowie disabled list with shoulder tightness.

The Orioles haven't gotten much return on their investment, but also haven't put as much up front as some other organizations.

According to one industry source, the club spent $750,000 in international signing bonuses in a recent two-year stretch, while the Yankees, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets each spent about $4 million or more during the same period.

The Orioles, however, are hopeful better times are on the international horizon. The club owns a tract of land in the Dominican that eventually will become an academy at least twice the size of its current facility. Also, in December 2005, they hired Stockstill away from the Chicago Cubs and created a position that would, at least in part, focus on international scouting. So far, the club has made pro scouting his priority, but Stockstill hopes to visit Japan this year.

Even if the Orioles' presence increases there, the question remains whether they are resolute about entering Asia and acquiring players.

"Absolutely," club executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "I would say we are building contacts [in Asia] as we go along ... and it's through those contacts that we are having talks with clubs and letting them know how serious we are in wanting to do something with that market."

Advertisement

Japanese talent pricey

Unlike in Latin American countries, Japan is filled with major league ready talent - but it won't come cheaply.

To get Matsuzaka, the Red Sox spent $103.1 million in posting fees and a six-year contract. The Yankees signed starter Kei Igawa to a five-year, $20 million deal this winter after posting $26 million in negotiating rights. In 2000, they gave Taiwanese amateur Chien-Ming Wang a $1.9 million signing bonus and in 2002 bought free agent Hideki Matsui with a three-year, $21 million deal that led to a four-year, $52 million extension.

"It's 100 percent about resources," Stockstill said, "What are you willing to spend? What is the level of the financial commitment? That is something the organization hasn't determined yet. How deep do you get into the market?"

Last offseason, the Orioles chose not to pursue any of the potentially available Japanese players including Matsuzaka, Igawa and infielder Akinori Iwamura, who signed with the Devil Rays.

With Matsuzaka, the decision was financial. Before negotiating a contract with the pitcher, who wasn't eligible for free agency for a few more seasons, teams had to submit sealed "posting" bids to Matsuzaka's Japanese team, the Seibu Lions. The posting fee was expected to be around $30 million, but the Red Sox paid $51.1 million just to negotiate with someone who had never pitched in the big leagues.

Advertisement

"We had discussions about doing the [Matsuzaka] thing, but you knew you were only going to go so high," Flanagan said. "You don't want to do it just to do it. You have to be rather committed to doing it."

The club wasn't as impressed with Igawa, who some within the organization saw as no better than a fifth starter, and Iwamura didn't fit the club's needs for a first base or left-field power bat.

Big in Japan

The Orioles' first flirtation with a Japanese player came in November 2002, when they made a formal offer to Matsui after an embarrassing contrast of style between them and the Yankees.

In the same week in which a Yankees contingent, led by GM Brian Cashman, went to Japan in hopes of wooing Matsui, then-Orioles GM Syd Thrift sent an e-mail detailing the club's interest and an overnight package of brochures about Baltimore and the club to Matsui. No Orioles scout went to Japan to see Matsui play, but Thrift said he had received reports from his "baseball spies," which included pitcher Rodrigo Lopez and athletic trainer Richie Bancells, both part of a MLB tour of Japan that offseason.

Weeks later, Thrift's expiring contract was not renewed and he was replaced by the tandem of Jim Beattie and Flanagan. The two made a late push to sign Matsui, but he joined the Yankees and averaged 23 homers and 110 RBIs in his first three big league seasons before injuries cut short his 2006.

Advertisement

Matsui followed a path of excellence first blazed by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo in 1995. Six years later, Ichiro Suzuki splashed onto the scene for the Seattle Mariners and won the AL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.

"Years ago, no one even thought they'd be close to this, but let me tell you they are phenomenal fundamental-wise, Japanese players and other Asian players," Yankees designated hitter Jason Giambi said. "They do a lot of things very well."

Ichiro's presence made the Mariners the top MLB draw in Japan. The Yankees took over when they signed Matsui and now the Red Sox have made a surge.

"I think the Yankees and Red Sox and Mariners are the three most popular teams now, in that order," said Hideki Okuda, who has covered Major League Baseball for two decades for the Sports Nippon newspaper in Tokyo.

If the Orioles were to sign an established Japanese player or two, Okuda speculated their profile would rise dramatically in Japan. Fans are already familiar with the Orioles because AL East games are televised so frequently and the club has a history with the country after goodwill visits in 1971 and 1984.

"The Baltimore Orioles still have a chance to be one of the more popular teams at the major league level for the Japanese," Okuda said.

Advertisement

With so many current Orioles already signed through 2009, the front office should have a better grasp of what holes need to be filled next offseason. And that could mean adding a missing piece or two from the Far East isn't too far off.

"If it is the right player and right fit," Flanagan said, "we aren't going to hesitate at all to get involved."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com


Advertisement