Koji Uehara might not be the same pitcher he was several years ago, but he can still be an effective member of a major league rotation, according to Japan's most famous American baseball personality.
It's tough to gauge whether a Japanese player can make the transition to the major leagues until it happens, said Bobby Valentine, the former big league skipper and player who manages the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League.
But Valentine believes Uehara, who is expected to take a physical early next week in Baltimore before his two-year, $10 million contract with the Orioles is announced, is a smart investment for a club that desperately needs starting pitching.
"If you can't take a risk of $5 million per year for a pitcher like him, then you can't take any risks at all," Valentine said. "I think it is a good signing."
Valentine has followed the right-hander since 1998, when Uehara was a highly touted amateur and the New York Mets, whom Valentine then managed, seriously considered luring him from Japan.
Uehara (pronounced "Way-a-hara") instead joined the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's version of the New York Yankees, and won two Sawamura Awards as the country's best pitcher. In 2007, he was moved to the bullpen and became an all-star closer, but his 2008 was marred by ineffectiveness, injury and a brief minor league demotion.
"I've seen him throw a lot better than he has thrown in the last couple of years," Valentine said. "Still, when watching him the last couple years, he can be a special pitcher. Just compared to himself, he's not the same. But compared to a lot of guys, he's a lot better."
Valentine thinks Uehara will be a mid-level, big league starter, a control artist like free agent Paul Byrd, but with more upside.
"He's a guy who hits his spots, changes speeds, competes, fields his position," Valentine said. "He'll study the hitter, know his weaknesses and attack them."
The manager isn't worried about how Uehara, 33, will handle the high-profile American League East because he spent his entire career in the spotlight with Yomiuri.
"[With the Giants] if you buy a new car, it's on the front page. If you get out of that car with a pretty girl, it's on the front and back page," Valentine said. "And he was the guy there."
The challenge, Valentine said, is for the Orioles to understand Uehara's situation. He'll need an interpreter and support staff. He'll be flocked, at least initially, by Japanese media. And it could be a distraction to him and his teammates.
"The Orioles really need to step forward in their preparation for this guy. If you leave him out there to swim on his own ... I think the learning curve will be too steep," he said. "I don't mean having an eight-man entourage shining his shoes and carrying his bags, but I do think they need to help with the acclimation process."
If he's successful, though, it will only help the Orioles' profile in Japan.
"I would suspect 80 percent of the people in Japan have no idea about the Baltimore Orioles," Valentine said. "But by this time next year, there will be a good percentage of people that know there is a major league team in Baltimore and that Uehara plays for them."
The Hudson effect
Orioles club president Andy MacPhail said he hasn't engaged in trade discussions concerning Brian Roberts recently because his focus has been on free agents.
But the lack of trade talk might also have to do with the current availability of former Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson.
Hudson is similar to Roberts: an outstanding 31-year-old defender and quick-footed runner who hits for average. Hudson, though, isn't as durable as Roberts - he's recovering from a dislocated left wrist that likely contributed to his slow-developing market. Still, one major league general manager said he doesn't think interest in Roberts will percolate until Hudson lands.
"That's the reality," the rival GM said. "Why would you trade for him now when you can sign Orlando Hudson? He may not be as good as Roberts, but you obviously wouldn't have to give up anything for him."
A caption on a sports page yesterday incorrectly identified a photo of pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa as Koji Uehara, who is expected to sign with the Orioles.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.