Looking through last year’s free agency, there is one player who signed a big contract who I had never heard of:
He’s a starter for the Atlanta Braves and signed a 3 year, $23 million contract with them this past offseason. Now, Kawakami is 34 years old and before this year, had never pitched in the Major Leagues. So WHY?
Why did the Braves shell out all this money for a pitchers years past his prime who has never faced big league batters?
Kawakami pitched extremely well in Japan, posting a 2.30 ERA last season while striking out 112 batters in 117 1/3 innings. But, the transition to MLB has hurt so many Japanese pitchers that shelling out all that money for a player already 34 years old just doesn’t make sense. The Red Sox put a huge amount of money into Daisuke Matsuzaka, expecting him to compete for Cy Youngs here, but instead he has struggled mightily and is 1-5 this year with an 8.23 ERA (He’s on the DL now). Remember the Yankees’ Kei Igawa? That worked out real well too. There is a history of dominant Japanese pitchers failing in the United States and those pitchers were in their prime. Kawakami isn’t.
Kawakami is 4-6 with a 4.46 ERA so far this season. Horrible stats? Not at all, but if I were the Braves, I would expect much more than that from a guy making over eight million dollars a year. Yet, how can you expect more from a guy who’s playing in America for the first time and is 34 years old? Kawakami’s stats are exactly what I’d expect based on his age, experience, and stats in Japan. The Braves just inexplicably and voluntarily overpaid for him.
Wait, there’s more. Kawakami missed three weeks of last season in Japan with a back injury. So now, he’s not just a 34 year old pitcher who has never faced Major League players, he’s a 34 year old pitcher who has never faced Major League players and who was injured parts of last season. But sure, why not, let’s give him a 3 year, $23 million contract.
The Braves should have been looking at someone like Jon Garland, Mike Hampton, or Mark Hendrickson. All three are making significantly less than Kawakami and have better stats then him. Garland is 29 years old, went 14-8 with a 4.90 ERA last year, and is currently 4-8 with a 4.80 ERA this year. Hampton has had some injury problems, but still was 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA last season. He’s 36 years old and is 5-5 with a 4.16 ERA this season and hasn’t missed a start. Hampton is making $2 million. Hendrickson is 35 and went 7-8 with a 5.45 ERA last season and this year is 3-4 with a 4.86 ERA. He’s making just $1.5 million. The Braves took a huge risk with not much reward (how good was his upside really?) when they could have complemented their staff with a solid, dependable veteran like one of the three aforementioned players.
Also, the Orioles signed Koji Uehara, another 34 year old pitcher who came from Japan to the US last season, to a 2 year, $10 million contract this past offseason. He was a reliever in Japan, but has been a solid starter (2-4, 4.05 ERA) for Baltimore. Did the Braves really think that Kawakami was worth $13 million more than Uehara (Yes, his stats in Japan are better, but still)? The blame rests on GM Frank Wren, who signed Kawakami to this absurd contract and should face the consequences of its failure.