The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ official announcement of the signing of former MLB star Andruw Jones signals the start of a period that will be remembered either for its great success or abject failure.
This isn’t the deep-pocketed Yomiuri Giants or Fukuoka Softbank Hawks dropping big money on a big name and letting things fall as they may. For a team like the Eagles, a one-year, ¥300 million investment in a player yet to take a swing in Japan has a certain make-or-break feel to it.
The prevailing question, of course, is how much the 35-year-old Jones has left in the tank. His best baseball is behind him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be productive for another few seasons.
If healthy, Jones is the type of player who could put up big numbers in Japan, and playing in cozy Kleenex Stadium only helps. He’ll pound mistakes, but will also have to quickly acclimate to sharper breaking balls and a strike zone that seems to give pitchers almost free rein at times.
In his prime, Jones was among the very best in the game. During 12 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, the Willemstad, Curacao, native was a five-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, and hit .263 with 368 home runs, 1,117 RBIs and posted an .823 on-base plus slugging percentage and 58.4 wins above replacement.
The rub is, Jones isn’t in his prime and hasn’t played at nearly that level in quite some time. He left Atlanta after the 2007 season and spent the next four years bouncing from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Texas Rangers to the Chicago White Sox and finally the New York Yankees, where he spent the last two seasons. He was only good for a 1.1 WAR combined over those four seasons.
Our most recent look at him comes from the two unremarkable years he spent as a part-time player for the Yankees in 2011 and 2012, hitting .220 with 27 home runs and 67 RBIs in 171 games. He struck out 133 times, drew 55 walks and posted a .769 OPS in 469 plate appearances. In his last season with at least 300 plate appearances, 328 for Chicago in 2010, Jones hit .230 with 19 home runs and 48 RBIs.
Because going from MLB to NPB isn’t a lateral move, its easy to envision Jones’ performance trending upward in Sendai.
Conversely, he could just as easily join the scores of players who came to Japan and failed for reasons as small as the subtle differences in the game or as varied as life outside the ballpark.
You can measure a player’s physical attributes, look at his history, crunch the numbers and make a reasonable assessment of what to expect, but it’s still impossible to delve into his psyche and predict how he’ll react to being immersed in an entirely new culture. Some players adjust, many others don’t.
For ¥300 million, the Eagles are making a sizable commitment to something, be it winning, ticket/merchandise sales, or both. Jones’ star power means the team’s initial performance on the field shouldn’t have much of an affect on the bottom line, but the bond between the two will grow stronger as the novelty of Jones’ presence wears off.
The hope for Rakuten is that Jones produces numbers that far outpace what they could’ve gotten elsewhere on the free-agent market for considerably less money — cash that could’ve gone toward patching the team’s numerous holes.
The team is taking a gamble next season. Jones could be the next Alex Ramirez (for a few seasons at least), but could just as easily be the next Brad Penny.
The Eagles undoubtedly landed a superstar name, only time will tell if they actually got a superstar player as well.