Meanwhile, Up the B-W Parkway...
The Baltimore Orioles today hosted a player-introduction news conference unlike any in the franchise's history. It was attended by about 50 media members -- about half of which, representing 12 different outlets, were Japanese -- plus representatives of the Japanese Embassy in Washington.
The Orioles have talked a big game lately about expanding their international scouting effort, particularly in Asia, and this week they validated all the talk, signing Japanese right-handed pitcher Koji Uehara to a two-year contract worth a guaranteed $10 million. Uehara, 33, becomes the franchise's first Japanese-born player.
It also is worth mentioning the Orioles have now beaten their regional rival, the Washington Nationals, into the potentially lucrative Japanese market, despite the latter's obvious advantages in terms of population and international cache. (The Nationals did employee a Japanese pitcher, Tomo Ohka, in 2005, but he was inherited when the team moved from Montreal and lasted only two months in Washington. The Nationals also signed pitcher Katsuhiko Maekawa last winter, but legal problems in Japan prevented him from getting a U.S. work visa.)
"I think you need to do more than lip service to saying, 'We're going to create a international scouting dept. We're going to expand our borders,'" said Orioles General Manager Andy MacPhail. Uehara "is a tangible example of that.... This is an example that we are doing the things we set out to do, and we've probably done it in a grander and more accelerated fashion than I anticipated."
Although Uehara, an engaging sort whose jokes translated well into English, acknowledged the Orioles had virtually no presence in Japan -- "Everybody knows that Cal Ripken Jr. played for the Baltimore Orioles," he said, "[but] I think that's about it" -- that is likely to change now.
Uehara is not merely a highly decorated product of the Japan's Central League -- an eight-time all-star for the popular Yomiuri Giants and two-time winner of the Sawamura Award (Japan's version of the Cy Young) -- but also a major sports celebrity whose popularity in Japan rivals that of Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, according to Gaku Tashiro, senior baseball reporter for Sankei Sports, an all-sports daily in Tokyo. Tashiro said the story of Uehara's signing with the Orioles was front-page news both Tuesday and Wednesday, and there likely would be a front-page photo Thursday of Uehara donning his Orioles cap and jersey at the news conference.
"He's on the downside [of his career]," Tashiro said, "but his popularity is still very strong, and there will be a lot of interest in him in Japan all season."
Uehara has been both a starter and a reliever in Japan, but the Orioles plan to use him strictly as a starter, owing to both the team's acute need for starting pitching and the fact Uehara throws four pitches (fastball, slider, change, splitter) with excellent command of each.
"He has everything, including the ability to throw strikes... with all pitches," said John Stockstill, the Orioles' director of international scouting, "and a lot of history that says he can be effective here as a starting pitcher."
The addition of Uehara is unlikely to push the Orioles into contention in the top-heavy AL East -- where the Tampa Bay Rays are coming off a trip to the World Series, the Boston Red Sox remain dangerous and the New York Yankees have spent $423 million this winter -- but he deepens their starting rotation, which at this point consists of Uehara, Jeremy Guthrie and three question marks. Newly signed lefty Mark Hendrickson could fill one of the other rotation spots, and former closer Danys Baez will be granted his wish to try to make the team as a starter this spring.
The Orioles are on the verge of filling one other hole, as they are close to announcing the signing of veteran catcher Gregg Zaun to a one-year deal. Zaun will be the Orioles' primary catcher until uber-prospect Matt Wieters is promoted from Class AAA -- probably in June -- then share time with Wieters.
Though the team also needs a first baseman, MacPhail said today he is prepared to go into the season with Aubrey Huff, a prodigious hitter but a below-average fielder no matter where he plays, as the Orioles' primary first baseman.
"We don't necessarily have to find a first baseman because we have a perfectly attractive one in-house," MacPhail said. "But there are a lot of moving pieces to the puzzle.... There are still a lot of [available] players out there."
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