Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The House of the Rising Sun

The Yankees went out and got themselves a Japanese pitcher yesterday, it just wasn't the one they originally wanted. The Yankees posted the highest bid for the right negotiate with Kei Igawa from the Hanshin Tigers. The winning bid was just north of $26 million dollars. It's just an example of how inflated the prices for pitching has gotten these days. Before the Matsuzaka bonanza, Igawa figured to go for somewhere in the $10-$12 million range, but with mediocre pitching being rewarded like never before, the price ballooned to over $25 million.

Igawa has a pretty decent record in the Japanese leagues. He's led the league in strikeouts three times and was the winner of the league MVP and the equivalent of the Cy Young award three years ago when he finished with a 20-5 record. His numbers are somewhat deceptive however. Despite the strikeouts, he is not a hard thrower. His best pitch is his changeup and his fastball breaks the 90 MPH barrier only occasionally. He is basically the definition of a finesse pitcher. The Yankees have had experience with a Japanese pitcher before and it was not exactly pleasant. Hideki Irabu was hailed as the Japanese Nolan Ryan before coming to the Yankees. He was supposed to throw in the uppper 90's and have a 90 MPH splitter. Unfortunately for the Yankees, neither of those things turned out to be true. Irabu pitched well against bad teams, but did not perform very well against against good teams. In his three years with the Yankees he only pitched in one post season game.

Igawa doesn't come with the fanfare or expectations of either Irabu or Matsuzaka. I'm pretty sure his team is absolutely shocked at the amount of money they got from the Yankees. The Yankees are thinking that it will take about $5 million a year for three years in order to get a contract done. Even at those bargain basement prices in today's insane market, the deal will still end up costing the Yankees about $40 million over 3 years. Of course they will hold Igawa's major league rights for 6 years before he can become a free agent, so the $26 million works out to a little over over $4 million a year over that period. The posting money does not count against the salary cap and so signing a pitcher for $5 million a year does make economic sense. The pitchers that are still available on the market are a collection of has beens and never was players. Ted Lily is a career .500 pitcher, Barry Zito has a record of 55-46 since his Cy Young award in 2002. Gil Meche has a career record of 55-44 and has a career ERA of 4.65. The best pitcher available is probably Jason Schmidt, but he is going to turn 34 in January and it's very clear that his best years are behind him, plus he has a history of arm trouble.

So what can the Yankees expect from Igawa? It's hard to say. He has a good 3:1 K to walk ratio. It's clear that he has had decent success in his career with a winning percentage of almost .600. He knows how to pitch, but how that will translate to the major leagues is anyone's guess. He recently pitched against a team of major league all stars and did not fare very well. He had been off for a month and as a finesse pitcher who probably needs regular work to stay sharp, the six walks he issued were probably indicative of his lack of recent activity. The scouts are saying that he projects as a back of the end starter, meaning a four or a five starter. If he signs for the projected $4 - $5 million a year, then he could turn out to be a bargain. Of course if he can't handle the majors then it would turn into a colossal waste of money. But as we've seen in the past, the Yankees aren't opposed to that.



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