Dodger fans will get an early Christmas present this year because the Dodgers have reportedly come to terms with 33 year old free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda…or as I call him Hi-Ku. The signing makes Hi-Ku the 7th Japanese native to suit up for the Dodgers. I’m sure most fans out there have never heard of the guy but believe it or not, he was the most sought-after pitcher available thru free agency. Pitching is at a premium this offseason because there isn’t any out there, unless names like Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse do something for you. The fact that a virtually unknown 33 year old out of Japan was the best available free agent pitcher on the market is a testament to how difficult it is for teams to land quality pitchers. The Mets have been unsuccessfully trying for years now. It’s not that there aren’t any good pitchers out there; there are, it’s just that teams are unwilling to let their guys go to free agency. Teams in this modern market try to trade their star pitcher (if they can’t sign him) before he hits free agency so they can “get some value” for him. Teams are still compensated with draft picks when they lose a star player to free agency but that’s chump change compared to some of the returns teams have gotten on big name pitchers. You can literally rebuild your entire club overnight. Billy Beane (GM of the Oakland A’s) does it every other year or so. When traded, those pitchers usually don’t hit free agency because a contract extension is almost always a part of the deal. If a team is going to gut their farm system they at least want to get a little more than a one-year rental in return.
Signing Hi-Ku comes down to supply and demand. Pitchers are rarely available due to overwhelming demand and a desperately short supply. That’s why it makes perfect sense to take a chance on an experienced arm like Hi-Ku. Sure, he’s largely unknown at this point, even GM Ned Colletti admitted that he’s never seen him pitch, but in this case that works in his favor. We didn’t want guys like Silva and Lohse because we HAVE seen them pitch and know that they don’t bring much to the table. Both pitchers will be extravagantly overpriced when they sign because there will be at least one team out there that is despondent enough to lock them up to long-term deals and pay them like #2 or #3 starters (i.e. the Mets). Hi-Ku’s deal is only for 3 years because he wants to leave open the possibility of retiring in Japan. That works out well for us and happens to be Colletti’s specialty. He’s a big fan of short-term deals because it lowers the chances for devastating, club-breaking failure. If you lock a player up long-term for big money and that player fails, it puts a stranglehold on the payroll and cripples the team for the length of the contract. What Dodger fan will ever forget the woeful days of Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort? That’s what happens when your highest paid pitchers don’t pitch. There’s no guarantee that Kuroda won’t get hurt or completely and utterly fail, but if he does it won’t adversely affect the team like it would’ve had we signed a guy like Kyle Lohse to a 5 year deal.
The big question is, how good is this guy? That’s yet to be determined. Japanese players have had different measures of success in the majors. Some have gone on to become all-stars, like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo, and other have been disasters like Hideki Irabu and Tsuyoshi Shinjo. You just don’t know what you’re getting. In eleven seasons with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Hi-Ku won 103 games, posted a 3.68 ERA and struckout 1,257 batters. In 2006 Hi-Ku won 13 games, posted a 1.85 ERA and struckout 144 batters in 189 innings pitched. Clearly, if he pitches like that in the States, he’ll be a major asset to the Dodgers. But what can we reasonably expect? It’s difficult to tell. He’s been fairly up and down throughout his career in Japan which makes it even more difficult to project. Any range of possibilities could happen, he could end up as a #3 starter or could get demoted to the bullpen, you never know. If I had to guess (which I already did, see Pantheon of Projections) I’d say we should expect an ERA from anywhere between 3.70-4.50 and 130-170 strikeouts but the chance is there that he could far exceed expectations. His good friend, closer Takashi Saito, is a good example of that. He wasn’t anything particularly special in Japan but has been dominant in the majors. Hopefully some of Saito’s good fortune will rub off on Hi-Ku. A real question for him will be durability. He’s only pitched over 200 innings twice in his career. Over the last 8 seasons he’s only averaged 179 innings pitched per year. That number will have to come up if he expects to have success in the majors. Hopefully injuries won’t be a problem down the road. From the sounds of it, the Dodgers plan on stretching him out thru a full season, which usually means about 220 innings. The most innings he’s ever pitched in a season was 212 in 2005.
All in all I think Hi-Ku is a good gamble for the Blue Crew. The price was reasonable and the length of the contract won’t leave the team hamstrung in the future. We weren’t the highest bidders for his services but he chose to sign here because Takashi Saito apparently talked him into it. If Hi-Ku pans out for the Dodgers and pitches well, Dodger fans will have yet another reason to thank Saito. Not only does he save games for us, he actively recruits his friends to come play for less money. We really got a great deal when we signed Saito, hopefully we can say the same about Hi-Ku this time next year.