Club expects to meet with 2 Japanese pitchers' agents

The Baltimore Sun

During next week's winter meetings in Las Vegas, the Orioles expect to have face-to-face discussions with the agents for two Japanese starting pitchers.

John Stockstill, the Orioles' international scouting director, said he has set up tentative meetings with Dan Evans, the agent for Kenshin Kawakami, and Mark Pieper, who represents Koji Uehara.

Orioles officials also are considering other Japanese players, including left-handed reliever Ken Takahashi, although Kawakami and Uehara fit the club's biggest need: starting pitching. Stockstill, who scouted Kawakami and Uehara this season in Japan, has had a brief meeting with Evans and has spoken by phone with Pieper, who also represents Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts.

"I think we have done a lot of work to get prepared for this. And it is turning out that with the very needs the club has, there are two or more [Japanese] players that fit those potential needs," Stockstill said. "So we'll see how it all turns out. At the same time, we are going to evaluate them and be fiscally responsible."

Kawakami and Uehara are both 33-year-old right-handers who have been among Japan's most accomplished pitchers of the past decade. Uehara, of the Yomiuri Giants, is a two-time winner of the Sawamura Award for pitching excellence, and Kawakami, who pitched for the Chunichi Dragons, won the Central League Most Valuable Player and the Sawamura Award in 2004.

Neither is considered more than a mid- to back-of-the-rotation starter in the majors. Some big league teams are looking at Uehara, a closer in 2007, as a reliever.

Millar a part-timer?

In Kevin Millar's ideal world, he would sign a free-agent deal this offseason with a team that would pencil him in as an everyday first baseman and allow him to hit somewhere near the middle of the lineup.

But Millar, 37, who has played the past three seasons with the Orioles, is coming off a season in which he hit .234, the lowest average of his career. That's why Millar called Orioles manager Dave Trembley this offseason and told him he is interested in returning to the club and willing to accept a part-time role.

"Right now, I'm at a point in my career where I understand that nobody is coming to me and saying, 'Hey, you're going to get 600 at-bats and be my No. 4 hitter," Millar said. "I love to play every day, but I would never not come back to the Orioles because I wasn't a starter. It would never be a factor where I said that I'm too good for a bench role."

The Orioles are looking for a long-term answer at first base this offseason with much of their attention focused on slugging free agent Mark Teixeira. If the Orioles can't bring Teixeira home - and they are considered a long shot to land him - and don't feel comfortable with Aubrey Huff at first base, Millar is one of their fallback options.

Though Millar hit just .204 over the last two months of the 2008 season, his other numbers (20 homers, 72 RBIs, 71 walks) were more in line with the team's expectations. He also played solid defense at first base and was the undisputed clubhouse leader.

Millar, who made a base salary of $2.75 million last year, understands he'll most likely get one-year offers and not know his fate until much later this offseason.

"Obviously, I'm in a holding pattern along with the other 170 free agents out there," Millar said. "Of course, I'd love to tell you today that I'm going back to the Orioles or I'm going to the Seattle Mariners. But you need a couple of pieces to start falling. You just have to wait this out, but I'd love to go back to Baltimore."

Feeling good

After not pitching for the Orioles last season after ligament-transplant surgery on his right elbow in August 2007, reliever Chris Ray has modest goals heading into spring training. He wants to stay healthy and make the team's Opening Day roster. Getting back his closer role is the furthest thing from his mind.

"Just to have a spot on that roster would be a thrill for me," said Ray, who started throwing this week and said his elbow feels good.

Trembley said he won't decide on a closer until spring training, though returning All-Star George Sherrill appears to be the front-runner for that role.

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