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Originally published Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Mariners | Pitcher quest leads to Japan

The Mariners' pursuit of a starting pitcher has taken them to Japan, where the club hopes to land free agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Mariners' pursuit of a starting pitcher has taken them to Japan, where the club hopes to land free agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, the former Hiroshima Carp ace.

A three-man Seattle contingent that includes general manager Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren is in Japan this week, where they are expected to meet with Kuroda, considered the top pitcher coming out of Japan this season.

Unlike Daisuke Matsuzaka, who signed with much fanfare last winter with Boston, Kuroda is not subject to the posting system. He can sign with any team, and is being pursued by numerous clubs. The Dodgers are regarded as Seattle's most serious competitors because of Kuroda's reputed desire to play on the West Coast.

One major-league source with a strong background in Japanese baseball said that he thought the Mariners were the front-runners for Kuroda. He said the Mariners could even make a preemptive signing before Kuroda got seriously involved with other teams, as they did two years ago with catcher Kenji Johjima.

Indeed, Johjima's presence is a potential selling point for Kuroda, whose transition to the major leagues would be easier with a countryman behind the plate.

Besides Bavasi and McLaren, the Mariners are represented in Japan by Hide Sueyoshi, their director of minor-league and scouting operations who often serves as liaison in matters involving Japanese players. Sueyoshi is a native of Osaka who joined the Mariners' scouting department in 1998.

It is possible the Mariners will also recruit Ichiro and Johjima to help make their case to Kuroda, who became a free agent by exercising an out clause in the four-year, $10 million contract he signed with Hiroshima last winter.

Kuroda, 32, is projected by scouts as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. He was 12-8 with a 3.56 earned-run average last season for Hiroshima, and he led the Central League with 15 victories in 2005. Kuroda has a lifetime 103-89 record with a 3.69 ERA in 11 seasons, all with Hiroshima.

Joe Urbon, Kuroda's Seattle-based agent, could not be reached Tuesday for comment. Kuroda's other agent, Steve Hilliard, declined to comment specifically on negotiations with the Mariners, but speaking in general terms, he said interest in Kuroda among major-league teams is high.

Urbon and Hilliard's agency, Octagon, also represents outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, the top free-agent position player from Japan this season. It is not known if the Mariners will meet with him as well.

Fukudome's 2007 season was hampered by an elbow injury that required surgery. Fukudome, 30, has won two batting titles, with two seasons better than .340 and a lifetime .305 average. In 2006, he hit .351 with 31 homers and 104 runs batted in.

No deal is likely to imminent with either player because both Urbon and Hilliard are still in the U.S. They are scheduled to go to Japan next week to meet with both Kuroda and Fukudome.

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Note

• The Mariners added infielder Yung Chi Chen and right-handed pitcher Joe Woerman to their 40-man roster, bringing their total to 38 players.

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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