Kawakami another piece of the puzzle

What can Kenshin Kawakami do for the Atlanta Braves?

Who was that the Braves signed? Kenshin Kawakami?

So we all don't know much about Kenshin Kawakami, but it looks like after his physical Monday he'll be the new member of the Atlanta Braves rotation.

It would be one thing if the Braves were adding a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher that we all knew about. We could all analyze a Jon Garland or a Braden Looper to see if they were the right fit for this rotation.

But this guy is an unknown. All we can do is look at his stats to see how he did in Japan and then watch the video of him on You Tube.

Well I admit I'm a bit excited about the Braves finally adding a significant player from Japan. We've seen other teams do it over the last fifteen years, but with the exception of a handful of minor leaguers the Braves have been out of that market.

The Braves hope KK will step right in with Javier Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens. They're still waiting for the ace, and if Derek Lowe will bite on the Braves offer this week they may fill that role too. But Kawakami is being brought in as the third or fourth starter.

Atlanta desperately needs Lowe. He would not be the perfect ace pitcher, but he would certainly fill the role with this group. The addition of Lowe to Vazquez and Kawakami would be a significant upgrade from last year.

It might not be Jake Peavy and A.J. Burnett, but it would still be pretty darn good.

How good might the rotation be with Lowe and Vazquez at the top? Well, Lowe, who turns 36 in June, has averaged 33 starts, 15 wins, and 208 innings pitched in the last seven seasons. Vazquez, who turns 33 in July, has averaged 32 starts, 12.5 wins, and 215 innings pitched in the last nine years.

Would there be another rotation in baseball with two veterans at the top that have averaged that many innings pitched in that amount of time? Doubtful.

We all know Lowe would be a significant piece of the puzzle, but so is Kawakami. The addition of the 33-year-old Japanese star allows Jair Jurrjens to fit in the middle of the rotation, and that duo is pretty good to follow Lowe and Vazquez.

The last few seasons have taught us that the middle of the rotation needs to be as strong as the top. KK and JJ would be pretty effective, especially if Kawakami can duplicate what he has done in his career in Japan.

Kawakami can throw his fastball in the 88 to 91 mph range, along with a good slow curveball, solid cutter, and a split-fingered fastball. He's won 112 games and lost 72 with a 3.22 ERA since 1998.

"He's always been a winner," one scout told The Braves Show.com. "He's a solid competitor with real solid career stats that have always stayed the same from year to year."

If the Braves sign Lowe he will lead the rotation with Vazquez, Kawakami, and Jurrjens to follow. That would allow one heck of a battle for the fifth starter's job in spring training.

Of course, one wildcard in that competition could be veteran Tom Glavine. Yes, he's still a possibility. Glavine, unlike John Smoltz, is only going to play for the Braves if he returns, despite what his agent tried to hint to ESPN after the Smoltz situation played out late last week. If Glavine is healthy, he'll be right there competing with the other young pitchers that will desperately want that job.

Jo Jo Reyes might be a favorite in that battle, since he'd be the only lefty (besides Glavine) in the rotation. Charlie Morton and James Parr, two right-handers, will also be in the mix. We all expect top prospect Tommy Hanson to try and get involved in the rotation battle. And then you have Jorge Campillo, who was second on the team last season with 25 starts. The Braves won't forget about him either.

Counting Lowe and Glavine, that's ten pitchers. That's pretty good depth.

It's natural for all of us to wonder if Kawakami can be as effective as Hiroki Kuroda was last season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. We all saw first-hand when he one-hit the Braves last summer how good he can be on the mound. Kuroda had an ERA of 3.73 in 31 starts, with 18 quality starts. For a middle-of-the-rotation starter, that's pretty good. And that's what the Braves will need from KK.

Maybe KK isn't Dice-K, but he really doesn't have to be for the Atlanta Braves. They just need another quality arm for the rotation. While we don't know much about Kawakami, it's natural to get excited about a pitcher that has had great success in Japan. Let's hope he won't be the last pitcher to sign with the Braves this week, but for now some guy from Japan named Kawakami is another piece of the Braves 2009 rotation puzzle.

Bill Shanks hosts The Braves Show Talk Show, The Atlanta Baseball Show on 680 the Fan in Atlanta, and The Bill Shanks Show on SportsRadio 105.5 the Fan in Macon. He is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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