CLEVELAND - The Indians planned on going far this offseason to bolster their bullpen, a strong suit last year, but an area viewed as one of the few of need on next season`s projected roster.
It doesn`t get much more farther than Japan.
On Tuesday, Cleveland signed Japanese relief pitcher Masahide Kobayashi to a two-year major league contract worth $6.25 million, with the deal for the
33-year-old right-hander including a $3.25 million option for the 2010 season.
Indians relievers posted the American League`s fourth-lowest ERA, with AL saves leader Joe Borowski, the league`s best setup man, Rafael Betancourt and a pair of young pitchers in left-hander Rafael Perez and righty Jensen Lewis seeing the majority of late-inning opportunities. The threesome of Borowski (652/3 innings), Betancourt (791/3) and Perez (602/3) carried much of the load for the team`s bullpen throughout the season.
Kobayashi, one of Japan`s most accomplished closers, is expected to provide another option at the back end.
He spent the last nine seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines, saving 227 games with a 2.79 ERA throughout his Japanese Professional League career. He has saved at least 20 games in each of the last seven seasons.
"This is a guy who has extensive closing experience," said Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro at a news conference Tuesday at Jacobs Field to announce the team`s first signing of a Japanese Professional League Player. "I view him in the upper echelon of guys who were available on the market.
"I don`t think we`ll ever be satisfied with our bullpen. We`ll continue to work to reinforce and today was a big step."
As of Monday night, it appeared that Kobayashi was heading to Kansas City, with him and the Royals reportedly close to a contract. Because he was an unrestricted free agent, unlike Seattle`s Ichiro Suzuki and Boston`s Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Indians did not have to pay an exorbitant posting fee to Chiba Lotte to negotiate with him.
But they are assuming a risk outside of the financial side, with Kobayashi coming off his worst season last year, losing a career-high seven games en route to a 3.61 ERA in 49 appearances. He spent time on the disabled list with a minor neck injury but returned in time to pitch in the Japanese playoffs.
Still, he is among the most highly regarded players in the Japanese free-agent pool this winter, along with outfielder Kosuke Fukodome and right-handed pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, employing an arsenal that includes a low-90 mph fastball, a splitter, and his out pitch, a mid-80s slider. His deceptive delivery has been compared to that of Boston`s quality left-handed setup man, Hideki Okajima â€“ also from Japan.
"We know what we`re getting in terms of his stuff," said assistant general manager John Mirabelli, the club`s director of scouting. "We know that his fastball is 90-95. We know what kind of a slider that it is. We know he throws strikes. We know his track record of durability. So he`s less of a risk."
Kobayashi is not the first Japanese pitcher in the Cleveland organization. Reliever Kaz Tadano, who did not pitch in the JPL, also appeared on the big league level for the Indians in 2004. Shapiro said the team would hire a fulltime translator to assist in acclimating Kobayashi to his new surroundings.
"I don`t know what`s going to happen but I believe I will be OK in getting along with my teammates," Kobayashi said through an interpreter.
He was asked what he knew about Cleveland on Tuesday.
"It has a beautiful lake," he said with a smile. "I am anxious to learn more about Cleveland."
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.