Matsuzaka hype worth buying, even at $103M


March 28, 2007|By Peter Schmuck

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --I'm going to be right up front about this. I thought the Boston Red Sox were absolutely nuts to spend $51.1 million for the negotiating rights to Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

I'll take my skepticism even further. I actually believed the Red Sox put that crazy bid in an envelope with the full intention of stonewalling Dice-K in those negotiations.

Really, Conspiracy Guy is alive and well and living in a dark corner of my addled head.

I thought it was just a great front office ploy to keep Matsuzaka out of New York for a year. The Sox lock up the negotiating rights. They can't reach an agreement. Matsuzaka has to stay in Japan for at least one more year. As they say in those Guinness commercials ... "Brilliant!"

Except that the Red Sox really wanted Matsuzaka, as evidenced by the six-year, $52 million contract they gave him to join Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett at the heart of their starting rotation. That's $103.1 million for a guy who had never thrown a pitch in the major leagues.

OK, so Conspiracy Guy had to go back into his cerebral spider hole, but the skepticism remained.

I talked to scouts who gave conflicting accounts of Dice-K's major league potential. Everybody liked him, but not everybody was sold on the notion that he would be a dominant pitcher at this level. One guy characterized him as a "good No. 3 starter," which is hardly the kind of pitcher who rates $103 million.

That's an issue in itself. Matsuzaka only got about half of the Red Sox' total outlay, so his salary could be considered reasonable for a good No. 3 starter in light of some of the free-agent contracts that were handed out over the winter. Nobody doubts that he's a solid pitcher with great command and above-average velocity.

But it was hard to get past the fact that Dice-K will cost the Red Sox an average of more than $17 million per year over the next six years. Matsuzaka doesn't have to look at it that way, but the team had to make its evaluation based on that average salary.

That's a ton of money, even for a guy with a secret pitch. Matsuzaka's "gyroball" was the talk of spring training in late February. Was it a screwball? Was it a modified split-fingered pitch? Was it an Asian urban legend?

Once again, I consulted the experts and got differing opinions, so I went to Fort Myers with the Orioles and took a look for myself. What I saw was a solid pitcher with good command and decent velocity. The "gyroball" looked like some kind of weird changeup, probably gripped like a split and thrown like a screwball.

The Orioles were impressed, even though a couple of their minor league prospects took Matsuzaka downtown - or what passes for downtown in a place like Fort Myers. I was impressed, too, but only a handful of American pitchers have been good enough to rate a $100 million investment.

This may be the longest I've ever taken to get to the point, but the past really is prologue.

I'm sold. I watched Matsuzaka pitch against the Cincinnati Reds on ESPN Monday and was more impressed watching the movement of his pitches from the center-field perspective, but the thing that sold me was his attitude after the game.

He declined to talk to reporters and issued a statement essentially apologizing for his unsatisfactory performance.

Here's the punch line: The guy pitched five hitless innings.

Apparently, he was upset at himself for walking five guys, which admittedly is a lot for a pitcher known for his great command, but you could tell by the players' rippling uniforms that the wind was swirling at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. It has been that way everywhere in South Florida this spring.

I'm usually hesitant to draw sweeping conclusions from spring statistics, but this guy has traveled halfway across the world to prove himself at the highest level of competition. He pitched five no-hit innings against some pretty good major league hitters, and he's dissatisfied with "the content" of his pitching.

What's not to love?

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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