When the Orioles made a scouting push to the Far East for the first time in their history this year, it was unclear whether they had committed to being serious investors the next time a high-profile Japanese free agent became available.
In the Orioles' first offseason since naming John Stockstill international scouting director, the question remains unanswered.
That's primarily because the 2008 class of Japanese players entering the U.S. so far is widely considered underwhelming. There is no major league-ready impact player such as Daisuke Matsuzaka or Ichiro Suzuki.
This year's group is led by two back-end-of-the-rotation starters, an unproven amateur, an aging reliever and a reserve catcher.
Yet, in a sense, this class might be a perfect fit for the Orioles' fledgling foray in Japan. No apparent superstars and perhaps no bidding wars. But two pitchers, in particular, who could help the Orioles fill out their rotation.
"We have a better idea, certainly, than we did one year ago as to what's available to us and what makes sense for us in that market," Orioles president Andy MacPhail said. "We will see how the market unfolds. Obviously we'll have to balance [the Japanese market] with what is obtainable in the U.S. market and go from there."
Stockstill said the Orioles have had "initial discussions" with three pitchers but would not offer specifics.
Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is right-hander Junichi Tazawa, 22, an amateur who created an international controversy by asking to be passed over in the Nippon Professional Baseball draft so he could go directly to the U.S.
Tazawa, who has a low-90s fastball, has the highest upside of the available group, but he is raw and unproven and is expected to command a lofty U.S. deal despite likely starting in the minors. The Boston Red Sox are the leading candidate to sign Tazawa; the Orioles weren't ever really in the conversation.
Signing an expensive, albeit talented, project as their first Japanese purchase doesn't seem to be in line with the Orioles' philosophy.
Instead, they seem to be a better immediate fit with a pair of 33-year-old right-handers who were once among Japan's most accomplished pitchers: Koji Uehara of the Yomiuri Giants and Kenshin Kawakami of the Chunichi Dragons.
Both are unrestricted free agents - they are not subject to posting fees the way Matsuzaka was - and are projected as mid- to low-level starters in the majors.
Uehara once was the ace of the Giants - Japan's version of the New York Yankees - and he is considered a strike-throwing, speed-changing specialist. He has solid command of three pitches, including a fastball that ranges from 86 to 91 mph and a splitter/forkball that he often uses as an out pitch.
A two-time winner of the Sawamura Award as Japan's best starting pitcher, Uehara was moved from the rotation to the closer's role in 2007. He then struggled to begin this year and was temporarily sent to the minors. The Orioles could be a leading contender for his services because they would use him as a starter, which he reportedly prefers. They have only one pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie, guaranteed a 2009 rotation spot.
Kawakami throws a little harder than Uehara and is a couple of months younger (he'll turn 34 in June). He, too, has a large arsenal of pitches but often depends on his cut fastball to get out of jams. Some scouts question whether Kawakami, the Central League's Most Valuable Player in 2004, can effectively lean on a flat, high-80s fastball if his cutter isn't working.
Ultimately, the Orioles' interest in Uehara and Kawakami will be determined by whether the pitchers' market value exceeds the Orioles' projections. That's difficult to discern, Stockstill said, until negotiations proceed.
Last season, Hiroki Kuroda, 33, who was projected as a fourth starter in the big leagues, received a three-year deal worth $35.3 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He went 9-10 with a 3.73 ERA in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium.
"There's no way to tell right now because the market is set by the buyers," Stockstill said. "It's based on the specific needs of different clubs and how much they are willing to pay for different players."
Two other available Japanese free agents, left-handed reliever Ken Takahashi, 39, and catcher Ryoji Aikawa, 32, do not fill major needs for the Orioles and, therefore, are not considered priorities. It's also possible some Japanese players could become available via posting or other methods later this winter, Stockstill said.
Regardless of the process, Stockstill and MacPhail said the Orioles wouldn't sign a Japanese player just to make inroads into the country.
"The biggest mistake you can make is to overpay a guy simply to get into the market," Stockstill said. "There are some people that pay to get into the market. We are interested in value, and the value has to meet our needs."