Mets Pitching Answers from Japan?

The Mets need to add this winter, at minimum, one starting pitcher and one relief pitcher. They would like to do that without trading away any of their few near-MLB-ready prospects, and without having to commit to an overvalued, long-term contract.

Enter Japanse hurlers Koji Uehara and Kenshin Kawakami.

Uehara is a veteran starter-turned-closer who will be 34 years old next year, and is intent on playing in the US in 2009. He’s a free-agent who will not be subject to the ridiculous posting process, which is nice. Although he has been an outstanding pitcher in Japan, and saved 30 games last season, I doubt he’ll come in and be a star in MLB. But from the reports, it sounds like he could be a decent middle reliever or back-of-the-rotation guy. Because of the difficulty in projecting his success, he should command a cheaper deal than similarly talented American free agents.

Kawakami is reportedly on the same level as Uehara, or possibly a notch below, and will likely cost in the neighborhood of $30M for three years. Like Uehara, he projects as a middle reliever / swing man.

Of course, there is enough projection to make signing either of these pitchers risky. But both of them are among the best pitchers in Japan, and the majority of recent imports — i.e., Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito — have proven to be solid MLBers. Unlike position players coming from Japan, the pitchers seem to be more likely to make a smooth transition after crossing the Paciifc. Yes, you can point out Kei Igawa as a failure, but he seems to be the exception rather than the rule (I feel that Igawa was neither mentally nor emotionally prepared to make the move to MLB, and NYC in particular).

There are two things I like about taking a chance on either Uehara or Kawakami. First, all they cost is money — no one needs to be traded, and no draft picks will be lost. Compare that to who might have to be traded for, say, Kevin Gregg, or the #1 pick that would be surrendered for a middle man such as Doug Brocail. Second, the Japanese pitchers have the advantage of mystery — batters never having seen them before — which seems to be an advantage on its own for at least a year. After that “mystery period”, both should be well prepared to adjust to MLB hitters after the hitters adjust to them, since they are longtime veterans (unlike Igawa, but like Saito).

The most obvious problem, of course, is the Mets’ recent history with Asian imports. Kaz Matsui was a bust, and Mr. Koo was underwhelming. But that shouldn’t keep them from trying again. After all, Tsuyoshi Shinjo can be judged as a success.

For more on ALL the Japanese free agents, check out NPBTracker, which provides fantastic coverage of baseball in Japan. Also, hat tip to MLBTradeRumors.

ADDENDUM: apparently all the Mets bloggers are thinking alike today. Check out Andrew Beaton’s post on Japanese imports at the HotFootBlog and a video of Uehara posted at MetsBlog.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.