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Tuesday, October 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How high will bids go for Japanese superstar?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Lou Melendez will know before anyone else who has won the bidding rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka, the most celebrated Japanese pitcher to hit the major leagues since Hideo Nomo more than 10 years ago.

Melendez is Major League Baseball's vice president of international operations, based out of its New York offices. It is to him that teams will soon fax or e-mail their blind bids for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka, setting into motion the most watched negotiating scenario of this winter.

"It's really a very simple process," Melendez said Monday.

Simple, perhaps, but fraught with mystery and intrigue.

Virtually every major-league team covets a pitcher of Matsuzaka's potential — he was the most valuable player of the World Baseball Classic and went 17-5 with a 2.13 earned-run average for the Seibu Lions in 2006, all at the age of 26 — so this bidding will be expensive.

Very expensive, especially for a pitcher who has logged high pitch counts and was nagged by minor injuries this year.

The growing sentiment in baseball, in fact, is that the Mariners will not make a major play for Matsuzaka, despite recent reports that he would love to play with Ichiro and Kenji Johjima.

Two well-placed baseball sources said Monday they don't expect the Mariners to make anything more than a token bid for the negotiating rights to Matsuzaka.

With Scott Boras signed as Matsuzaka's agent, and already positioning his client as deserving to be paid like an established No. 1 starter, the Mariners apparently are not willing to get heavily into bidding that could reach $20 million or $30 million just for the right to negotiate a contract with Matsuzaka.

As a possible reference point for the contract itself, think Houston's Roy Oswalt, who signed a five-year, $73 million contract extension in August that kept him out of free agency.

"I think the Mariners will go after him, but I don't think it will be the enthusiastic and aggressive approach they've employed in the past [for Japanese players]," said one source.

Another source concurred, saying he believed the Mariners were "more comfortable spending their money on established major-leaguers."

The Mariners would then have to look elsewhere to fill their obvious need for starting pitching help.

Barry Zito (16-10, 3.83 ERA in 2006) and Jason Schmidt (11-9, 3.59 ERA) are possibilities.

Matsuzaka is regarded as a can't-miss prospect by many scouts. Bobby Valentine, the former manager of the Mets and Rangers, now managing the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, raved about the pitcher.

"He is very special," Valentine said from Japan via e-mail. "He has a good fastball that he throws from 90 mph to 95. He has very good control and can throw any one of three other pitches over for a strike any time in the count.

"He likes to compete and is a good fielder. He would do very well in the States. He is going to pitch at 27 next year and has pitched more than any other pitcher his age. He might pay the price for that in the future, but you have to pay now to find out about that later."

The bidding process on Matsuzaka will begin when Seibu notifies the Japanese commissioner's office that it will allow the pitcher to be posted. Japan's commissioner will then notify MLB, at which time teams will have four days to submit their bids to Melendez for the negotiating rights.

Melendez will then determine which team has the highest bid. He will notify the Japanese commissioner's office of the winning bid — but not identify the team that made it. The Lions then have four days to accept or reject the winning bid. If they accept, the identity of the team will be publicly revealed, and that team will have 30 days to come to contract terms with Matsuzaka.

If the winning bid is rejected by Seibu, or it is accepted but no contract agreement is reached in 30 days, Matsuzaka would return to the Lions and be eligible to post again next season. In both instances, the posting amount would not be paid by the MLB team. Matsuzaka is not eligible to be an unrestricted free agent until after the 2008 season.

"He views this as an opportunity, but not an opportunity he has to pursue now," Boras said. "If a team picks him that he doesn't want to go to, I'd imagine he'd want to go back to Japan."

Boras said Monday he expects Matsuzaka to post in "the early part of November," but notes, "it's the decision of the Seibu group."

The posting period is Nov. 1 through March 1, but Melendez noted, "If past practice holds true, it will be the first or second week [of November]."

Boras termed interest in Matsuzaka as "widespread, no doubt about that. Most major-league teams don't have a No. 1 starter, and this year there are two on the market. It's a rare opportunity for clubs to fill that void."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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