The Boston Red Sox are hot on the tails of 22-year-old Junichi Tazawa to join the club, but there's another Japanese pitcher out there that may end up serving as the Sox's No. 5 starter in 2009.
Kawakami has a fastball, cutter, curveball, shuuto, and forkball. His fastball hovers in the high 80s and low 90s, with his calling card being his control, as his 1.24 K/BB in 2007 would attest. If you factor that in with his 6.3 K/BB, you find that he was 2006 Curt Schilling-esque—Curt went 15-7 in 204 innings with a 3.97 ERA that year. (And like Schill, he has his own blog!)
As the ace pitcher of the Chunichi Dragons, Kawakami is well accustomed to winning. His team won the division title in 1999, 2004, and 2007, and they won the Japan Series in '07, only the second in team history and first since 1954.
He is a Rookie of the Year champion and threw a no-hitter against the Yomiuri Giants in 2002 (when Hideki Matsui was still with the team.) He is a Sawamura Award (Cy Young) winner and Central MVP, winning both in 2004.
He won his eighth Pitcher of the Month award in June 2008 (a record), posting a 3-0 win-loss record to go along with a 1.70 ERA. He finished 2008 with a 9-5 record, 2.30 ERA and 117.1 innings in 20 starts. He whiffed 112 and while there are no walk numbers in there, he had 24 walks as of Sept. 13.
In the 2008 Olympics, he posted a 4.70 ERA and cost Japan a shot at the bronze medal, giving up four runs at the hands of Taylor Teagarden and Jason Donald after entering the game in a tie.
Back to his pitches. He has a slow curveball, throwing it around 65-70 miles per hour (but no curveball can be slower than Zack Greinke's curveball in MVP Baseball 2004.) His cutter is "known as Japan's finest among visiting MLB All-Stars," which is a pretty good designation.
He can be homer-prone, but so can Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling. Fenway Park works just fine, as they are consistently near the bottom in home run park factors.
He has been compared to Hiroki Kuroda, which would be a pretty nice get for Boston. Kuroda, 33, just finished up his first year with the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 9-10 record, 183.3 innings and 3.73 ERA (31 GS).
Kawakami has already hired an American agent, Tony Attanasio (hey, no Boras!). His move to America is all but a foregone conclusion, as the Dragons offered him a four-year pact at a pay cut.
He had formerly been Japan's highest-paid pitcher. A Yahoo article (in Japanese, summarized here) says that Kawakami "could fulfill a swingman role for Boston, with Mike Timlin retiring and Justin Masterson taking some turns in the rotation."
It'll be interesting to see if the Sox pursue Kawakami. He's been profiled as high as a No. 3 starter and as low as a back of the rotation starter. The Sox may be hesitant to commit long-term dollars to him, especially when he would block Clay Buchholz for most of the year. That may not be a concern, but what about 2010? Will the Sox let Josh Beckett walk to work Buchholz into the rotation?
Paying attention to just 2009, I would support a signing of Kawakami. The long-term ramifications, however, may preclude the Sox from offering extended years, years another team desperate for pitching could produce. (Of course, the Sox always have the option of trading Kawakami down the road or not picking up Tim Wakefield's option, so this line of thinking may be irrelevant.)
What do you guys think? Should the Red Sox go after Kawakami and plug him into the rotation and have Buchholz repeat Triple-A and Justin Masterson stay in the bullpen?
All told, that may be just the right move for the Sox, as they can then stay out of the frenetic bidding for all the pitchers on the free-agent market in America; all with just as many question marks as Kawakami but destined to make more.
Here are a few videos of Kawakami.
The first is when he gives up a home run to Tuffy Rhodes near the beginning of the video:
This video is a quick double play that Kawakami was on the mound for:
And this video is an extended look at his pitching. The video was uploaded a year ago, but the year "1998" appears in the title, so it's either a video from last year or 1998, his rookie year. At the shot at the very beginning, he looks very young, so I'm betting 1998.: