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Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

Top scout Poitevint gives Matsuzaka's game a once over


The sweat on the uniform from his final game had hardly dried and already speculation was running rampant about whom he would be pitching for in the major leagues next season.

Jack Gallagher

Huge posting numbers and storied franchises were being speculated upon, and it all made me think we might just be getting a little bit ahead of ourselves again.

Sure, Seibu Lions ace Daisuke Matsuzaka is a fine talent, and would seem to be on track for a solid career in the majors, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is all going to work out that way.

I just keep thinking back to 1997, and all the buzz that surrounded the signing of fireballer Hideki Irabu by the New York Yankees.

Bobby Valentine, who managed Irabu in 1995 with the Chiba Lotte Marines, had no question about the talent of the big right-hander.

"He is one of the top 10 pitchers in the world," Valentine told me in a 1996 interview.

There weren't many, on either side of the Pacific at that time, who would have disagreed with him.

Yet the final record shows that Irabu, who was 28 when he pitched his first game for the Yankees, finished with a mediocre record of 34-35, with a 5.15 ERA, in six seasons in North America.

News photo
Daisuke Matsuzaka is expected to seek a three-year, 30 million dollar contract from the MLB team that wins the right to negotiate with him after he is posted. KYODO PHOTO

The winning bid for Matsuzaka through the posting system is projected to be between $25 million to $30 million. The MLB team that tops the bidding will then still have to pay the 182-cm, 85-kg right-hander, who is said to be seeking a three-year contract for $30 million.

These are staggering numbers, even for teams in major markets.

With the Irabu fiasco as a cautionary tale, it makes you wonder just how many clubs will be willing to risk up to $60 million for Matsuzaka.

With this in mind, I sought the advice of an expert for an analysis of the 26-year-old MVP of the World Baseball Classic.

Legendary scout Ray Poitevint, the general manager of International Operations for the Chicago White Sox, has signed more than 200 players who have reached the major leagues during his long career.

Considered the foremost authority on baseball talent in Asia, Poitevint had some interesting takes on Matsuzaka, who recorded a career-high 17 victories during the regular season (against five losses), while notching an ERA of 2.13.

"He may eventually be a No. 1 starter. If you are looking at a first-division ball club, that has a good pitching staff already, you are looking at him maybe being your third starter at the outset," Poitevint said by telephone from his California home recently.

"If he stays healthy, by the second year he would be at least your second starter. He has all of the ability. It has to do with the non-physical things and the adjustments."

Poitevint, who saw Matsuzaka pitch Game 1 of the first stage of the Pacific League playoffs against the Softbank Hawks in person earlier this month, noted that there is no question about the former Yokohama High School star having the physique to excel against MLB competition.

"Physically, he could help any team. He is an American-type pitcher. He has the kind of stuff that American major-league pitchers have.

"He is not coming with great movement, or deception on his changeup, or anything of that nature. He is just a good, solid pitcher."

Despite the appearance of Matsuzaka being physically sound, Poitevint wonders about the amount of wear and tear the star has already put on his pitching arm.

"My only question is, he has been up near 200 innings pitched many times in his career, and has had some physical problems, which he has bounced back from.

"However, he has pitched a lot of baseball for someone as young as he is. That is my concern. My first reaction to the type of money he is seeking, is 'take a physical.' "

To the casual observer, Matsuzaka, who struck out 200 batters during the regular season, might appear to have a devastating fastball that overpowers hitters.

Poitevint, who has been associated with Japanese baseball for 40 years, says this is not the case.

"He usually pitches based upon necessity. He might throw a fastball to a leadoff hitter, or to a hitter with two out and nobody on, that is about 141 kph. But if he is going for a strikeout, he will get that up to 147-150 kph.

"He has an above-average fastball. He has an above-average forkball. His control, most of the time, is above average. When he gets in trouble, it is just touching average."

Poitevint believes Matsuzaka, whose career record is 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA, may be guilty of trying to do too much on the mound.

"He is throwing a lot of pitches that aren't necessary. He has quality pitches. He could take three of those pitches, and maybe the fourth one he throws, and it would be enough."

Poitevint, who has seen Matsuzaka pitch nearly 30 times over the years, provided some specifics about just how teams in the majors rate pitching prospects.

"When we scout, we rank them from two to eight. Five means average, six is above average, seven is good, eight is excellent.

"Matsuzaka is a 'six' on everything. He is above average. He doesn't have the fastball of Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens -- which were 'eights.'

"There are some 'eight fastballs' in Japan, but Matsuzaka doesn't have one.

"He has an above-average fastball with some movement on it. I think he is good enough that he doesn't have to put the wear and tear on his arm that he does by throwing so many different pitches."

Poitevint acknowledged that Matsuzaka, who broke in with the Lions during the 1999 season, had big-league quality on his fastball from almost his first day as a pro.

"When he came out of high school, he had all this stuff almost immediately. It has just improved slightly. He was average major league with the fastball from the beginning. Now he has gone to above average.

"He might throw you a 'seven' fastball every once in a while, but he can't do it 20 out of 20 times. He might do it three out of 20. He'll show you a flash."

Poitevint then reviewed the repertoire that Matsuzaka is expected to take with him to the majors.

"The pitches that he has command of are the slider, forkball, changeup, the four-seam fastball -- which is a riding-type fastball with increasing velocity, the two-seam fastball -- which has some sink. All of those pitches are above average.

"Unless his control falters, he will have success. Only injuries will prevent him from being a No. 1 to No. 3 starter."

When he saw Matsuzaka strike out 13 and hit four batters on Oct. 7 at Seibu Dome, in what was likely his last game for the Lions, the apparent contradiction did not raise a red flag for Poitevint.

"He struck out 13 and hit four batters, but those four hit batsmen served a purpose. He had those guys thinking up there. It's not a child's game.

"Guys like (former St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer) Bob Gibson used to drill the hell out of guys -- and there was a reason for it.

"It didn't tell me Matsuzaka's control was off, it told me his pitching was more effective because he could get away with hitting a guy once in a while."

While noting that Matsuzaka has the stuff to succeed in the majors, Poitevint also thinks the hurler possesses the fortitude required to achieve on the biggest stage.

"Matsuzaka has real good emotional control and mental toughness. He has some cockiness.

"In the game I saw him pitch recently, he showed up the umpire with some hand gestures. He won't be able to get away with that in the majors. They will run him right out of there if he tries that.

"High draft picks like him, if they are not successful, it is only because they did not spend enough time on what we call the 'lower half' -- the mental part of the game.

"We give all of our top prospects athletic motivational tests. It will tell you if a player is weak on emotional control if the winning run is on third base, or if a guy isn't coachable, or doesn't trust instruction."

Poitevint recognizes that while almost every team would want Matsuzaka, who is expected to be represented by agent Scott Boras, it doesn't mean they are all going to pursue him.

"I think all 30 clubs would be interested, but when you are talking about the money he is going to be looking for, I don't think more than 10 will be able to bid on him."



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