O's next shortstop made in Japan?

Being Ripken fan, Matsui knows of Baltimore as he begins to map U.S. future


November 18, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Kazuo Matsui was talking to the Japanese press last week about possibly leaving the country to play Major League Baseball, when a reporter asked him if he had given any thought to playing for the Baltimore Orioles.

Matsui, a seven-time all-star and four-time gold glove-winning shortstop in Japan, said he didn't know much about Baltimore, the city. But he knew plenty about a certain guy who used to play shortstop for the Orioles: Cal Ripken.

In November 1996, Matsui was invited to play in the annual series between some of the top players from North America and Japan.

Ripken had a starring role, and Matsui, now 28, was still a young reserve.

"I saw [Ripken] play from the end of the bench, and it was very exciting for me to see," Matsui told the Japanese newspaper, Sports Nippon.

Seven years later, there's an outside chance Matsui could be headed to the Orioles to play Ripken's old position, shortstop.

Yesterday, after a week of speculation that he may decide to stay in Japan, Matsui officially declared his intentions to pursue a big-league career in North America.

Matsui, a switch-hitter who batted .305 with 33 home runs last year for the Seibu Lions, is expected to draw interest from several teams, including the Orioles, Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees.

"Is he somebody we're going to look at? Yes," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said.

After declining their 2004 option on shortstop Deivi Cruz last week, the Orioles are considering several different ways to fill the position. They have talked about moving second baseman Brian Roberts to shortstop, so they can spend their money elsewhere, but they have also talked about pursuing Matsui or Miguel Tejada, the 2002 American League MVP.

With money to spend, and the shortstop position open, the Orioles would seem like a good fit for Matsui. But their challenge could be convincing Matsui to come to Baltimore.

So far, the biggest stars to come from Japan have all landed with major league teams in cities with large Japanese populations. Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki both went to the Seattle Mariners. Hideo Nomo and Kaz Ishii both landed with the Dodgers. Then last year, Hideki Matsui (no relation) signed with the Yankees.

According to 2000 Census data, of the 4.8 million people in Baltimore-Washington corridor, just 0.1 percent, or 6,360, were Japanese.

Last year, the Orioles tried to make a late run at Hideki Matsui, sending him an e-mail and an overnight package filled with brochures promoting Baltimore and Camden Yards. Weeks later, they offered him a three-year, $21 million contract, but he wound up taking a similar deal from the Yankees.

"If we get to that point [with Kaz Matsui]," Flanagan said, "we would like him to come to Camden Yards and see all that Baltimore has to offer."

This time, the Orioles have done more homework. They didn't send a scout or club official to watch Matsui play in Japan this season, as other teams did, but Flanagan has seen videotape and talked with several people who watched the Lions play.

"He's got the size and build of [former Orioles shortstop Mike] Bordick," Flanagan said. "He's very fast, or I would say quick. He's a switch-hitter who's put up some impressive numbers, and from what I've seen, he's got great range."

But the price for Kaz Matsui probably won't be as high as it was for Hideki Matsui, baseball officials say. One National League executive, who scouted Kaz Matsui in Japan this year, said he expected the bidding to start at three years, and about $12 million.

Nicknamed "Little Matsui," Kaz Matsui has put up some big numbers in Japan.

In 2002, he became the eighth Japanese player since 1950, and first switch-hitter, to hit .300 with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the same season.

Last year, his stolen base total dropped to 13, but he still drew 55 walks and posted a .368 on-base percentage as the Lions' leadoff hitter.

"What I'm seeing in the U.S. papers is maybe a little bit too many expectations," said Keizo Konishi, who covers major league baseball for a Japanese wire service called Kyodo News. "[Kaz Matsui] does so many things: He's a switch-hitter, and a shortstop, but he's not going to be as good of a player as Ichiro or Hideki Matsui."

Konishi covered Kaz Matsui with the Seibu Lions in 1999 and 2000 before coming overseas to cover the majors.

"I still think he's the shortstop who has the strongest arm of the Japanese infielders, but his hands may not be the best," Konishi said. "I still have a lot of respect for his ability. He's a very good player who can play here as a regular shortstop or regular infielder."

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