10/28/2003 6:26 PM ET Kazuo Matsui files for free agency Japanese shortstop could sign with MLB club By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
Kazuo Matsui turns a double play during the Japan-MLB All-Star series last November. (Koji Sasahara/AP)
Kazuo Matsui of the Seibu Lions in Japan's Pacific League has filed for free agency, paving the way for him to play in the Major Leagues next season. A switching-hitting shortstop, the man known as "Little Matsui" in Japan could become the third major Japanese position player since 2000 to leave Nippon Professional Baseball, following the exodus of Ichiro Suzuki to the Seattle Mariners and Hideki Matsui to the New York Yankees.
"He's one of the top players still over there," Hideki Matsui said this season about Kazuo Matsui, to whom he his not related. "He has a lot of speed. He's very good at defense and has a strong arm. He's not a true power hitter, but he has pop and puts the ball in play."
The 27-year-old Kazuo Matsui, who hit .305 with 33 homers and 84 RBIs this season for the Lions, has been coveted by the San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, Anaheim Angels, New York Yankees and Mets, who all scouted him extensively in Japan this season.
But Little Matsui goes into a market that will be flooded with high-profile shortstops, including San Francisco's Rick Aurilia and Oakland's Miguel Tejada.
Like Hideki Matsui, Kazuo Matsui is a true Japanese free agent with 10 years of experience. He can negotiate freely with any team in the Major Leagues or Japan and is not subject to the Major League Baseball posting system for Japanese free agents who do not have the requisite amount of service time.
When the Mariners signed Ichiro after the 2000 season, they had to post a blind bid with MLB for the right to negotiate a contract. The Mariners won the bidding process and had to pay the Orix BlueWave $13 million for Suzuki's rights. Seattle subsequently negotiated a three-year, $14 million contract with Ichiro that has one year remaining at $3 million.
Hideki Matsui signed a three-year, $21 million contract last year with the Yankees.
Since the slugging Matsui played for the Yomiuri Giants in the Central League, he claims to have not developed much of a relationship with either Little Matsui or Ichiro, whose former team, the BlueWave, also play in the Pacific League.
In Japan, there is no interleague play and no playoffs leading to the Japan Series. The three stars met only during All-Star games or when MLB sent its own All-Star team to Japan to play a squad of Nippon Professional Baseball stars.
Last year, Matsui's Giants swept Matsui's Lions in the Japan Series and then Hideki Matsui played center field and Kazuo Matsui played shortstop for the Japan All-Stars when the MLB stars toured Japan for eight games last November. In that series, Ichiro returned to play in Japan for the first time since leaving for the Mariners as a member of the MLB All-Star team.
Kazuo Matsui is a member of the Japanese team that will play in the Asian Olympic Qualifying Event that starts Friday and runs through Nov. 7. The top two finishers in that tournament earn berths in the 2004 Summer Olympics at Athens, Greece. The Japanese, unlike like MLB, will take a break in the regular season next year to send their best players to compete for the gold medal in Athens.
Little Matsui has drawn some interest in Japan from the big-market Giants. He hasn't made up his mind if he will play in the Majors next season, although he quietly made his way to New York last week and watched the opening games of the World Series, which the Yankees eventually lost to the Marlins in six games.
"I would like to be more than once, more than twice the player that I am now," Matsui said. "That's why I have declared my free agency."
Well, Kaz Matsui hasn't exactly been as good as the Mets expected him to be. Maybe they were expecting him to be the japanese version of A-Rod...
The Mets surprised many observers by outlasting several clubs in the wooing of Kazuo Matsui. Signed in December to a three-year deal worth $20.1 million, he hit .305 with 33 home runs last year with Seibu. He earned four Gold Gloves and two stolen-base crowns in Japan's Pacific League, and was tabbed MVP in 1998.
Hitting, Baserunning & Defense
The 28-year-old Matsui supplants shortstop Jose Reyes, who moves to second base to give the Mets a spectacular double-play combination. Matsui is a smooth fielder with plus range, a strong arm and great quickness. Offensively, he is a top-of-the-lineup contributor who is capable of driving pitches from gap to gap. While the Mets do not expect him to hit 30-plus homers in the major leagues, Matsui reminds some of Rickey Henderson with his speed/power combination.
When the Mets added veteran scout and player development guru Al Goldis to the front office this past fall, he said the team needed to get plus-plus defenders up the middle. New York now has that with Matsui and Reyes. Based on his tools and overall confidence, "Little Matsui" could be everything to New York that Ichiro is to Seattle.