International Options: Foreign free agents

Could pitching help for the Mariners be on the horizon from the land of the rising sun? Can the Mariners fill their most pressing offensive need by casting their eyes toward a small, communist island nation in the Caribbean? Well… maybe. If you think signing Adrian Beltre or Richie Sexson carries some risk, let me introduce you to Daisuke Matsuzaka, a 23-year-old right handed pitcher from Japan, and Kendry Morales, a 21-year-old slugger from Cuba.

These two players come with potentially high price-tags and rate very high on the risk/reward scale.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

With the signings of Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki, the Mariner fans are somewhat familiar with the process of getting Japanese players to the United States. In short, a player has to either have nine years of service time in Japan to become a free agent or must be posted by their current team. Once posted, each MLB team has an opportunity to submit a sealed bid, with the highest bidder winning the right to negotiate with the posted player.

There have been some rumors that Matsuzaka wants to be posted by his team, the Seibu Lions. Since he has less than the required nine years of service time, the only way he can come to the states is through the posting system. In 2004, Matsuzaka went 10-6 while leading the Pacific League in ERA at 2.90, helping Seibu to the Japan Series title. In addition, he struck out 127 batters and allowed only 127 hits in 146 innings. Matsuzaka also led the Pacific League in complete games (10) and shutouts (5).

When asked in an article in the Japan Times earlier this year about the next Japanese star to come to the United States, former major-leaguer Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes had this to say, "(Daisuke) Matsuzak. He is the toughest pitcher I have played against in Japan. He throws 96 miles per hour (154 kph). He has a good fastball, slider, curveball and changeup."

Matsuzaka comes with risks, though. Rumors are that he was allowed to wrack up huge pitch counts with Seibu, and did the same back in his high school days. Just how much left in his right arm is the question. But assuming his arm checks out okay and he is indeed posted by Seibu, Matsuzaka could be a risk worth taking.

Kendry Morales

The 21-year old Morales, who defected from Cuba earlier this year via boat to Miami, comes with the reputation of being one of the best position players to come to the U.S. from Cuba. A switch-hitter with tremendous power, Morales can play one of the corner infield or outfield positions, but along with his power reputation comes a reputation of having a lead-glove, perhaps making him more suited to be a designated hitter.

Morales being interviewed (Photo: Granma Internacional)

Morales has reportedly been working out for major league teams in his adopted homeland of the Dominican Republic, where he now has citizenship.

Two years ago in the Cuban League, his last full season, Morales hit for a .324 average and set rookie records with 114 hits, 21 home runs and 82 RBI.

The downside for the 2005 Mariners is that Morales may not quite be major-league ready. His young age, combined with the fact that he has played little over the past two years, may mean he needs some time in the minor leagues.

The Mariners in the past have indicated that acquiring international players are accounted for differently in their finances than normal player acquisition costs. If that is indeed the case, and the signing of Matsuzaka and/or Morales wouldn't impact the M's ability to add proven major league talent to the 2005 roster, each of these players should be strongly considered.

Morales would fill a big gap in the Mariners system as a young, power-hitting corner infielder/outfielder that they have failed to develop internally in recent years. And although Matsuzaka adds to the reputed strength of the organization, pitching, you can never have enough golden arms on the mound.

If the Mariners are serious about building a team for 2005 and beyond, they should consider making a play for Matsuzaka and Morales and hope it doesn't get lost in translation.

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