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Sunday, August 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Matsuzaka sweepstakes on horizon

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Daisuke Matsuzaka became an instant legend in Japan in 1998 as a teenager, when his three-day performance in the hugely popular National High School Baseball Championships was of mythic proportions.

Competing at the hallowed Koshien Stadium near Kobe, Matsuzaka won the quarterfinal game for his Yokohama team by pitching all 17 innings of an extra-inning game — 250 pitches' worth.

The next day in the semifinals, with his right pitching arm wrapped in bandages, according to Time magazine, Matsuzaka played the outfield until the ninth, when he took the mound to save the victory. And in the championship game the following day, Matsuzaka pitched a nine-inning no-hitter, and has been a Japanese hero ever since.

Now Matsuzaka is poised this winter to be the next Japanese star to try the major leagues — provided that his Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, lets him make the move after their season ends.

Whether Seibu will do so is an open question that draws considerable variance of opinion. Because Matsuzaka will not be a free agent until after the 2008 season, his only route to the United States before then is if Seibu agrees to "post" him — the same method by which Ichiro joined the Mariners after the 2000 season.

Thumbs up

David Ortiz, Red Sox: Ortiz (pictured) is unquestionably the King of Clutch. When hitting in walkoff situations this season, Ortiz is 8 for 9 (.889) with five home runs and 15 RBI.

Thumbs down

Vicente Padilla, Rangers: It's bad enough that Padilla was picked up in Dallas on July 7 for suspicion of driving while intoxicated, but the Rangers didn't find out until last week, when a reporter asked general manager Jon Daniels about it.

Ex-Mariner of the week

Carlos Guillen, Tigers: He became the 10th Tiger to hit for El Ciclo — the cycle — on Tuesday against Tampa Bay, racking up a hustle double in his final at-bat. Guillen led the Tigers to their 71st win, matching last year's total.

Quote

"I guess it was an even trade." — Royals third baseman Mark Teahen, named American League player of the week while the NL honor went to Carlos Beltran, for whom Teahen was traded.

I surveyed a cross-section of major-league officials, scouts and media with knowledge of Japanese baseball, and found virtually a 50-50 split of opinion on whether Matsuzaka will be posted this winter by Seibu — which has twice already denied his request to be posted.

The Mariners are intensely interested in the outcome of this issue. While most teams in baseball will vet Matsuzaka, the consensus is that it will ultimately come down to the Mariners, the most successful major-league team in mining Japanese talent, and the Yankees, who have already begun laying the groundwork for a massive Matsuzaka pursuit.

The Yankees, as revealed recently by Sankei Sports and Newsday, have hired Shoichi Kida as an associate scout based in Japan. Kida went to the same high school as Matsuzaka (though four years before the pitcher) and was his teammate for a time with the Lions.

If Matsuzaka is available this winter, he will instantly join Oakland's Barry Zito as the most coveted pitcher on the market — with both players represented by uber-agent Scott Boras. Just 25, Matsuzaka has long been considered the best pitcher in Japan, and is in the midst of another strong season.

Those who believe that Matsuzaka will be posted point to the ongoing financial problems of the Seibu group, whose owner, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, was convicted in 2005 of insider trading and received a suspended prison sentence.

The reasoning goes that Seibu can't afford to miss out on the huge posting fee they would receive. If they force Matsuzaka to wait for free agency, he would leave without any compensation for the Japanese club, as happened a few years ago with Kazuo Matsui.

"Seibu, it is clear, wants to post Matsuzaka," Robert Whiting, author of the seminal book on Japanese baseball, "You Gotta Have Wa," said via e-mail.

"One indication of that is all the complete games they are letting him pitch. They want to get as much use out of him as possible now — and then get money for him by posting."

Those who believe that Matsuzaka won't be posted note that he is the Lions' most visible and popular asset, and attendance would plummet without him.

"I doubt he will be posted," said one person with close ties to the Japanese league. "Seibu has regrouped and consolidated its hold on the team, and Matsuzaka is their only drawing card. He is worth more to them than almost any posting offer."

Many believe it might come down to whether Seibu wins the Pacific League title and makes it to the World Series, as it did two years ago. It is currently running neck and neck in the standings with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

Last year, Seibu cited the absence of a pennant as the reason it didn't post Matsuzaka, saying also that his record (14-13 with a 2.30 earned-run average) wasn't good enough to justify it. A pennant this season could allow him to leave with both sides saving face.

What we do know is that Matsuzaka badly wants to come to the United States, a desire he has stated publicly many times.

He is better than ever in 2006, compiling an 11-4 record with a 2.01 ERA. He has 10 complete games (in 17 starts) and has struck out 133 in 125-1/3 innings.

In 2004, Matsuzaka became the first Japanese pitcher to hit 100 mph on the speed gun (at the Olympics), and this spring he was named the Most Valuable Player in the World Baseball Classic after leading Japan to the championship at 3-0, 0.85.

"Matsuzaka might be the best Japanese pitcher to come along in the past 25 years," Whiting said. "Most sportswriters in Japan rate him as better than [Hideo] Nomo in his prime."

Once a player is posted by his Japanese team, Major League Baseball teams must submit a sealed bid just for the right to negotiate with the player, with the high bidder getting the honors.

In the case of Matsuzaka, the posting winner would then get the privilege of negotiating a contract with Boras, who reportedly has signed on to represent him.

In December of 2000, the Mariners were mandated by owner Hiroshi Yamauchi to land Ichiro, and blew every team out of the water with their $13 million posting bid.

But the stakes have raised considerably in the ensuing six years. If Matsuzaka is posted, the speculation is that the bidding might reach $30 million or even higher — with contract negotiations still to come after that.

At such a high posting price, the Mariners — and most other teams not owned by George Steinbrenner — might well prefer to wait for Matsuzaka to become a free agent after the 2008 season, when he will still be just 28.

And still a legend.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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