All Eyes Focused on Matsuzaka’s Newfound Health and Rotation Battle
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the Spring Invitees with a chance to make the Tribe’s Opening Day roster.
By Mike Brandyberry
Indians spring invitee Daisuke Matsuzaka may be the most watched pitcher in Goodyear this spring and not just because he’s followed by throngs of Japanese media everywhere he goes.
If Matsuzaka can find the command and health he previously had before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011, he could be a surprise piece to stabilize the Tribe’s starting rotation. Currently, the Indians rotation is the team’s biggest weakness and reason some feel they still cannot compete for a playoff spot despite all their offseason roster improvements.
But a healthy Matsuzaka could catapult the Tribe into serious contention. It’s why his first bullpen session was monitored by not just Pitching Coach Mickey Callaway and Tribe Manger Terry Francona, but also Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti, Assistant General Manager Mike Chernoff and team trainers. Antonetti likes the possibility Matsuzaka’s newfound health could provide the Tribe.
“He obviously has a long and distinguished track record of success when he’s been healthy,” Antonetti said in a video during his Feb. 13 press conference to announce Matsuzaka’s signing. “Unfortunately over the last few years he has had a number of injuries. When he’s been healthy, he’s been a good pitcher, whether it’s here or in Japan.”
Matsuzaka, owns a career Major League record of 50-37 with a 4.53 ERA in 116 starts with the Boston Red Sox since 2007. The Tokyo, Japan native went a combined 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA in 61 starts for the Sox in 2007-08 but has been limited to 18 starts and 83.0 innings the last two campaigns after undergoing right elbow reconstruction in June 2011.
The right-handed pitcher was the MVP of the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, going 6-0 with a 1.95 ERA in six WBC starts. Daisuke pitched for the Seibu Lions from 1999-2006, going 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA in 204 games/190 starts and led the Pacific League in strikeouts four times, finished first in wins on three occasions and was a two-time ERA champ.
Matsuzaka returned to the Red Sox rotation in the middle of last season, but had disappointing results, going 1-7, with an 8.28 ERA in 11 starts. When his contract expired at season’s end, the Red Sox were content to let Matsuzaka walk away—a pitcher they paid $51 million to Seibu in 2007 for the rights to negotiate a contract. After not receiving any serious Major League offers all winter, the Tribe agreed to a minor league contract and an invitation to Spring Training with Matsuzaka on Feb. 10. The Indians are intrigued by his health and potential.
“I think most importantly, he is healthy and that he is able to go through Spring Training in a normal progression and then demonstrate the stuff we’ve seen in the past,” Antonetti said.
“We found a year removed (from Tommy John), guys do tend to perform better with command, they’re better to locate their pitches and limit walks,” Antonetti said.
Matsuzaka’s signing also reunites him with his former manager, Francona and teammate Kevin Cash. Cash, who is now the Tribe’s bullpen coach, pushed hard along with Francona to give Matsuzaka a chance to rebuild his career. Matsuzaka told Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes he wanted to remain in the American League so that he had a chance to pitch against Boston.
Matsuzaka, who has Japanese media follow him daily through is MLB career, could be veteran presence that might stabilize the Tribe’s starting rotation that was 48-76, with a 5.25 ERA in 2012. The rotation faltered even farther, going 15-42, with a 6.07 ERA in the second half. With Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Brett Myers already promised rotation spots, Matsuzaka will have to compete for one of the final two spots with Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and fellow invitee Scott Kazmir. Kazmir, like Matsuzaka, is trying to rebuild a career that has been derailed by injuries.
“We have a number of intriguing players, but Daisuke and Scott are both guys who have been very successful Major League starting pitchers that haven’t had the health or success they’d like to have had, but seem to be in a good place now,” Antonetti said.
The Indians must decide to add Matsuzaka or Kazmir to the 40-man roster by March 26, or offer each a $100,000 to accept a minor league assignment. They have the right to decline and become free agents. If Matsuzaka makes the roster, he’ll make $1.5 million for the season with another $2.5 million in incentives possible based upon games started and innings pitched. Antonetti says the organization is focused on giving each an opportunity to make the big league roster and will consider minor league options later.
At only 32-years old, a healthy Matsuzaka could pitch the Indians back into playoff contention if he could find his 2007-08 form. Ironically, it was Matsuzaka who was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the 2007 American League Championship Series that eliminated the Tribe from the playoffs. The Indians have not returned to the postseason since that game.
A healthy, consistent Matsuzaka could be the piece to springboard the Indians to the next level in 2013. If the two find themselves again on the big stage, this time together, Matsuzaka need not worry about all the eyes watching him, they already are.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer