Former Chunichi Dragons right-hander Kenshin Kawakami became the second high-profile Japanese free agent pitcher to join a major league team in the past week, and the scout who recommended him and the agent who worked out his contract say they are delighted with the agreement.
Following the signing of ex-Yomiuri Giants ace Koji Uehara by the Baltimore Orioles, Kawakami inked a lucrative deal with the Atlanta Braves.
Special assignment scout Chuck McMichael is the guy who watched Kawakami pitch in Japan on several occasions and suggested the Braves sign the 33-year-old hurler and 2004 Central League MVP.
Atlanta general manager Frank Wren also traveled to Japan last season to watch Kawakami and check out Japanese baseball, and McMichael credits local scout Hiroyuki Oya, who lives in Osaka, for the heads-up on Kawakami.
Speaking by phone this past week from his home in Dallas, McMichael said, “Hiro is our man on the ground in Japan and the one who first told me to keep an eye on Kenshin.”
McMichael did that and was impressed by Kawakami’s assortment of deliveries, excellent control and the ability to adjust his pitching, even on days when his best stuff is not working well.
“Each time I saw him, he was outstanding or just ordinary,” said McMichael. “Kenshin realizes even the best pitchers on some days can spot the ball, while on others they cannot, but you still have to go out there and compete. He has a good cutter, I like his curve ball, and he can normally put his fastball where he wants it.”
As for what to expect from Kawakami during his first season in the majors, McMichael said he could not set goals for number of wins or ERA but would instead put the emphasis on a smooth transition to U.S.-style baseball.
The primary goal is for the player to get comfortable and put whatever he finds different about America behind him. “The rest will take care of itself,” predicted McMichael. “He just needs to fit into the rotation.”
The Braves starting pitchers corps was recently reduced by the loss of John Smoltz to the Boston Red Sox, but bolstered by the acquisition of another veteran, Derek Lowe. McMichael thinks Kawakami would be the third or fourth starter after Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta’s leading winner in 2008, and Lowe.
Kawakami and his new team will hold spring training at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and the opening series for the Braves this year is at Philadelphia against the 2008 World Series champion Phillies on April 5, 7 and 8. Atlanta’s home opener is against the Washington Nationals on April 10.
McMichael was told more Braves games — especially when Kawakami is scheduled to pitch — are sure to be on TV in Japan this coming season. He expects to travel to Japan again during the year and said, “That’s good for me. I’ll be able to keep track of the team better while I am there.”
Meanwhile, the man sitting on the opposite side of the table during the Kawakami negotiations was Dan Evans, former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager and Seattle Mariners scout and now president and CEO of West Coast Sports Management in Pasadena, Calif.
He’s been in the agent business for about a year, and his firm includes former major league players, coaches and scouts Jim Lentine, Bret Saberhagen, Scott Budner and Donn Parris, plus Felix Olivo in Latin America and Emmy Award-winning TV producer Susan Evans, Dan’s wife.
Kawakami is the first Japanese player he’s placed with a major league club, and Evans, on the horn from California to where he had just returned from the Atlanta signing, said about his client, “I saw him play in an All-Star Game, but it makes a big difference to see someone in person to get a feel for his character and enthusiasm for the game.”
Competitors have said what a big heart he has, and that is a big trait that will come in handy as he makes the move to the majors and the longer season.
Somewhat puzzled two weeks ago when the Japanese sports press “decided” Kawakami had narrowed his choice of MLB teams to the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins, Evans said that was bogus; he was still talking to more clubs.
“I don’t mind the rumors,” he said. “But not when they are totally untrue. Atlanta was always a clear choice, and the Braves sold their franchise and city and explained how Kenshin could fit into the community. He was really impressed when he got to Atlanta and started his trip which was crammed with events.”
Kawakami met with Braves manager Bobby Cox and GM Frank Wren, took a tour of Turner Field, his new home ballpark, and coincidentally met U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young at a restaurant while dining with team officials.
“He happened to be sitting at the next table, and Kenshin got to meet him,” said Evans.
Young, who threw out the first ball at the first game at Turner Field and was instrumental in winning the 1996 Olympic Games host role for Atlanta, welcomed Kawakami to the city.
Evans realizes Kawakami will have to deal with the language barrier and other problems but expects him to do just fine.
“He’s had so much success in Japan,” said the agent. “There’s no reason why he can’t succeed in Atlanta.”
One more thing: Kawakami will see at least one familiar face when he reports to camp with pitchers and catchers next month. The Braves have also invited Dominican right-hander Rafael Cruz, a teammate with the Dragons here in 2007 and 2008, for a shot at making the club.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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