Hiroki Kuroda

You may have missed it, especially in light of this weirdass Torii Hunter news, but the Mariners have an offseason all their own as well, and they're starting to get to work. As such, they're currently evaluating the guys on the roster and identifying players outside the organization who look like they'd be able to come in and plug a hole. They're not making much noise, but they're not exactly laying out by the pool.

The front office's strategy appears to be sliding Jones into right to replace Guillen and signing a fourth starter, leaving one final rotation slot for an in-house candidate. We can argue all we want about whether or not that's the best course of action (it's not), but that's what they seem to be doing, so we might as well get used to it.

Who's going to be that fourth starter, you ask? The name on everyone's tongue right now is Hiroki Kuroda, a soon-to-be 33 year old Japanese import. He's a free agent, so there's no posting process, and the Mariners have already flown their expensive suits across the Pacific to chill with the guy. He's the organization's top target, and between his desire to play on the West Coast and the team's inherent advantages of having Johjima and Ichiro and a willingness to spend all willy-nilly, odds are good that we already know the identity of our big winter acquisition. Honestly, at this point I'd be surprised if he signed somewhere else.

With that in mind, I feel like I should state my opinion of Kuroda. The few times he's come up so far I've expressed a little skepticism, and I ought to clarify why that is, because otherwise it doesn't mean much.

I see Kuroda as a back-of-the-rotation starter who's going to get something close to Washburn money. The kind of guy who improves your team but costs you two or three times what he should. I'm all about making the Mariners better, and if this is indeed where he lands then I'll be rooting for him to look like a solid investment, but with equivalent or superior pitchers out there who wouldn't require as large a commitment, it isn't a move that I'd make. You're supposed to overpay your stars, not your filler.

I'll be honest - never having watched Kuroda pitch, I can't really offer any unique insight into the quality of his repertoire. However, the Internet is magic, and Jason over at Prospect Insider recently offered a bit of a scouting report. Fueled by that and a few other articles, there doesn't seem to be anything particularly impressive about Kuroda's arsenal. The splitter sounds nice, and could be used as a putaway pitch a lot like Kaz Sasaki's, but the fastball and slider are average, and he doesn't have a good offspeed pitch that he can throw for strikes to keep lefties off balance. The whole package isn't bad or anything, but it's not exactly mindblowing either, and there's reason to be concerned with whether or not the fastball will make a good translation into a more talented league.

That's the scouting angle (also worth mentioning is that, no, Kuroda doesn't have a quirky hitch in his delivery that makes him more deceptive). Here are the numbers. Kuroda's no spring chicken, but he's had some strong seasons in Japan, most notably the 2006 campaign that saw him post a 1.85 ERA with a K/uBB ratio over 8. That level of success was out of character with the rest of his career, though, and he regressed to a 3.56 ERA and 3.2 K/uBB in 2007. (He did have some elbow discomfort, but it was nothing.) Still, looking over the entire track record, he's been a good pitcher, and he's excelled first and foremost because he just doesn't issue many walks. Hiroki Kuroda throws strikes.

But there's a funny thing about that. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa threw strikes in Japan too, and they saw their walk rates fly north after making the switch. Of the six big starting pitchers who made the transition from Japan to the US (Matsuzaka, Nomo, Yoshii, Ishii, Igawa, Irabu), five of them wound up walking more batters, with Nomo standing as the lone exception, presumably because his delivery was so fucking weird. It would appear that Kuroda's due for a bit of a hike in free passes.

That's relatively minor when compared to the home run phenomenon, though. Overall, those same six starting pitchers saw their HR/9 rates nearly double after coming over. Matsuzaka went from 0.63 to 1.10. Yoshii went from 0.77 to 1.15. Ishii went from 0.93 to 1.17. Igawa went from 0.73 to 1.99. And Irabu went from 0.40 to 2.53 (in his admittedly limited rookie season). Again, Nomo is the only exception (0.71 to 0.66), but also again, I'm comfortable with calling that a byproduct of his crazy throwing motion. As batters became more familiar with it, they hit him a lot better.

Unless they throw funny, Japanese imports just haven't had anywhere close to the same success keeping the ball in the park in the US as they did back home. Kuroda allowed 20 in 179.2 innings in 2007, and even when you consider that Hiroshima's a small ballpark and that Safeco isn't, homers are a legitimate concern going forward. He's going to allow more. It's only a question of how many.

The good news for Kuroda is that, while his walk and home run rates will almost certainly rise, there's no statistical reason to believe that his strikeouts will drop that far, as they've remained pretty stable for the other guys. There's obviously the scouting concern that his fastball may not work as well here as back home, but based on 55% reason and 45% gut, I'm fairly confident that he can keep himself around a 5.8-6.2 K/9. Batista level, perhaps. So that should keep him from falling apart. Unless I'm totally wrong.

Add it all up. If you're an optimist, you'll see a #4 who looks like a #3 when he's dealing. If you're a pessimist, you'll see Kyle Lohse. The biggest factor is going to be the home run rate, and how well Kuroda's able to keep it under control. And that'll probably come down to how confident he is putting his repertoire over the plate after two or three guys take him deep. There's some definite upside here, but it's pretty limited, and I think when it's all said and done Kuroda's going to end up a 4.5-5.0 FIP starting pitcher. Decent arm to have in the rotation? Yeah. Worth what Kuroda's asking for? Nuh uh.

Admittedly, a lot of this is moderately educated speculation. Kuroda might throw me off by getting back into 2006 form or adjusting to the Majors in a way all his own. That's entirely possible, because our sample of historical imports is really small. The probability, however, is that he's a #4 who wants ten million a year, and being a GM is all about playing the odds. Make enough good bets and in the long run, while a few will have blown up in your face, you'll be sitting pretty. Make enough bad bets and you'll be the Orioles. Hiroki Kuroda does not strike me as the best and most cost-effective answer for the rotation, and for that reason I'm not particularly thrilled with the likelihood of his ending up a Mariner.

Better him than Silva, though.

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