Orioles open door to Asia

Pitcher Uehara to become team's first Japan native

January 07, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

The Orioles have filled one vacant spot in their wide-open rotation while simultaneously opening the door to the Far East.

Japanese right-hander Koji Uehara has agreed to a two-year, $10 million, incentive-laden deal pending a physical, which could take place this week in Baltimore, several industry sources confirmed.

Uehara, who turns 34 in April, will become the first Japan native to play for the Orioles, the last team in the American League East to tap into the Asian market.

His contract could be worth as much as $16 million over two years if the eight-time Japanese All-Star meets certain performance bonuses and escalating clauses, such as starts made and innings pitched. There is also a games-finished clause included for Uehara, who was an All-Star closer in 2007 for the Yomiuri Giants, but the Orioles view him almost exclusively as a starter.

Club president Andy MacPhail would neither "confirm nor deny" the report, but he reiterated that tapping Asia and other parts of the world for talent is a priority for the Orioles. The club made an orchestrated effort to boost its international presence in 2008, moving pro scouting director John Stockstill to a newly created international position.

"This is an area we have explored over the course of the last year," MacPhail said. "John Stockstill has had the opportunity to spend an amount of time there and we feel more comfortable in that market than we did a year ago."

Mark Pieper, the agent for Uehara, said Stockstill's familiarity with the pitcher as well as the club's sustained interest during free agency were two of the key components in his client's decision.

But the most important factor was that the Orioles not only want Uehara in the rotation, but they are also penciling him in as their No. 2 starter, behind Jeremy Guthrie. Some scouts view Uehara as a back-end-of-the-rotation major leaguer, but Pieper said he thinks his client can succeed as one of the Orioles' top options.

"I have a lot of confidence in this guy. He'll take the ball every fifth day and can be a No. 2 or 3 in a very difficult division," Pieper said. "This will be a challenge for him, but he is clearly up for it."

A 6-foot-1, 190-pound control artist who was once one of the best pitchers in Nippon Professional Baseball, Uehara has spent his entire career with the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's version of the New York Yankees. He was a starter through 2006, twice winning the Sawamura Award given to the country's best pitcher. He returned to the Giants' rotation in a difficult 2008 season, in which he battled ineffectiveness and a hamstring injury and was temporarily demoted to the minors.

He was 6-5 with one save and a 3.81 ERA in 26 games for the Giants in 2008 and was 112-62, with a 3.01 ERA in his career. Perhaps most impressive is that he has struck out 1,376 batters in his career and walked just 206.

"He is coming over here as one of the most highly decorated pitchers from Japan," Pieper said. "There have been a number of good, quality [Japanese] starters, such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Koji is right there."

The Orioles are still looking for at least one more starter and will continue to monitor the market and pursue free agents Braden Looper, Tim Redding and another Japanese player, Kenshin Kawakami.

But the immediate priority is expected to switch to catcher - with the club looking at former Oriole Gregg Zaun and likely Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez - and a right-handed-hitting first baseman.

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