Highly-regarded Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka signed a $50 million, four-year contract with the New York Yankees Thursday, the latest step in an intricate scheme by the Seattle Mariners to lower his price by implying a lack of interest.
Matsuzaka, 26, is widely considered to be the best pitcher to come out of Japan since Hideo Nomo, and the prize of a market whose other top arms include Jason Schmidt and former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito. However, Mariner officials were discouraged by rumors that exclusive negotiation rights alone could run as much as $30 million, so they set to work on a plan that would reduce Matsuzaka's cost by encouraging the idea that there would be a lesser demand for his services.
Said CEO Howard Lincoln, "all along other teams have thought that they'd have to outbid both us and the Yankees to win Mitsubishi's rights. This way, by constantly indicating to people that we're not interested, we lower the perceived competition, thereby also lowering the price and allowing us to swoop in at the last second to win the sweepstakes for a much more reasonable fee than was expected." President Chuck Armstrong grunted his approval.
To get an idea of just how determined the Mariners are to end up with their man, one need only visit the front office at Safeco Field. A banner reading "Kawasaki Or Bust" hangs over the door, and TV and computer monitors around the room show endless looping video footage of Matsuzaka befuddling hitters back home with a wide array of putaway pitches. This is a group of executives that will stop at nothing to land their target.
"Obviously, we're interested," said General Manager Bill Bavasi, now in his fourth offseason with the Mariners. "It would be completely stupid and irresponsible not to be. Hitachi is clearly a pitcher at the top of his game, and rarely are you presented with the opportunity to acquire a legitimate star in the prime of his career. It would be foolish to set our sights elsewhere without at least trying our best.
"We thought we were doing a pretty good job of manipulating the market when we told the press we weren't going to bid at all," Bavasi continued, "but the fans saw right through that. And if the fans are able to tell when we're throwing up a smokescreen, you better believe that other teams' front offices can as well. So we had to ramp it up a little bit."
As any experienced fibber can tell you, the key to a good lie is staying committed. And that's exactly what the Mariners have done.
Said Bavasi, "Toshiba's contract with New York couldn't possibly have worked out any better. Now when other teams see him and Brian Cashman shaking hands and holding up a new Yankees jersey at his press conference, they'll think not only that demand is down, but that he's off the market entirely. They won't even bother bidding. As far as we're concerned, we couldn't ask for a better situation."
With other teams' interest in Matsuzaka dwindling now that he's settled in New York, the Mariners are expected to approach the Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka's former team in Japan, with a posting bid in the neighborhood of $15 million, which they anticipate will be enough to secure his services. For the sake of comparison, Ichiro's rights cost Seattle approximately $13 million in 2000, while Kazuhisa Ishii's cost Los Angeles just over $11 million in 2002.
Assuming Matsuzaka and the Mariners are able to work out a contract before their 30-day window expires, Bavasi says that won't be the end of his efforts to shore up a depleted rotation that returns only Felix Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn from the 2006 season. Repeated calls to Bud Selig's office requesting that the Minnesota Twins be forced to post Johan Santana haven't been returned, but as Bavasi points out, there are plenty of other options floating around; teams just have to be willing to look for them.
"We're 100% committed to fielding as strong a team as possible next season," concludes the GM. "Toyota's only the start. With names like Chris Carpenter and Brandon Webb sitting out there as free agents just waiting to be signed, the sky's the limit.
All we ask for is patience. I guarantee the fans will be rewarded in the end."