WTNYJanuary 22, 2004
Far Eastern Entry
By Bryan Smith

Earlier this week I discussed the story of Kaz Sasaki, the ex-Mariner that has opted not to return to the Major Leagues in 2004. Instead, he will stay with his family, yet hasn't ruled out the possibility of pitching in Japan. If he decides to do so, he'll be only 31 saves from becoming the Japanese all-time saves leader, a gap that should not widen any further since current recordholder, Shingo Takatsu, will be coming to America after signing a one-year, $1M contract with the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday.

Consider that when Kaz Sasaki left Japan after the 1999 season, he 'retired' with 229 saves. At that time, Takatsu only had 98 saves, but has caught on like wild fire the last five years, notching 162 saves in that span. Here is a look at what Takatsu has done from 1999-2003:

1999: 30Sv 2.18ERA 32H/41.1IP 38K/8BB
2000: 29Sv 2.08ERA 32H/34.2IP 29K/8BB
2001: 37Sv 2.61ERA 49H/51.2IP 39K/13BB
2002: 32Sv 3.89ERA 37H/41.2IP 28K/11BB
2003: 34Sv 3.00ERA 42H/42.0IP 26K/21BB

While his save totals and ERA are somewhat impressive, his peripheral numbers are less than amazing. His H/9 in the last five years is only 8.18, and has risen to 8.51 in the last three seasons. A K/9 rate of 6.81 isn't very intriguing, especially considering that number has decreased in each of the last five years. His K/BB has also decreased each season, hitting a concerning 1.24 last year. Admittedly it's hard to put these numbers into context with the MLB, so we'll look at how another closer (Sasaki) did before coming to Seattle. Here are Kaz Sasaki's numbers from 1995-1999:

1995: 32Sv 1.75ERA 30H/56.2IP 78K/17BB
1996: 25Sv 2.90ERA 37H/49.2IP 80K/16BB
1997: 38Sv 0.90ERA 25H/60.0IP 99K/17BB
1998: 45Sv 0.64ERA 32H/56.0IP 78K/13BB
1999: 19Sv 1.93ERA 19H/21.1IP 34K/6BB

Sasaki blows Takatsu away in every stat except saves, which is due to an injury-plagued 1999. Sasaki's H/9 of 5.28 dwarfs the Japanese saves leader's of 8.18, and Sasaki actually improved (4.98) in from 1997-1999. Kaz had an insanely high K/9 of 13.63, and a better BB/9 to boot. He was a much better pitcher, so his Major League success shouldn't be a surprise. Remember that in 2000, the year in which Sasaki won American League Rookie of the Year, his H/9 'rose' to 6.03, and his K/9 'fell' to 11.20. That means his H/9 rose 14.2%, while his K/9 fell 17.8%. If this happens to Takatsu, he'll have a H/9 of 9.34, and a K/9 of 5.60. Projected to 60 innings: 62.27 hits and 37.33 strikeouts. The man they call "Mr. Zero" in Japan may be worth just that.

If this is true, Takatsu will prove to be worth less than the $1M that Jerry Reinsdorf is paying him, but it's a decent bargain. Takatsu is still almost guaranteed a bullpen slot, along with Damaso Marte, Billy Koch, Cliff Politte, and Kelly Wunsch. That leaves only one to two bullpen slots open, yet the White Sox have hardly filled the roles. Possible relievers Scott Schoenweis and Danny Wright sit at the back end of the rotation, leaving uncertainty amidst the Sox pitching staff. So the team took a few gambles Wednesday, signing Vic Darensbourg, Robert Person, Mike Jackson, and Jose Santiago all to minor league contracts.

Ken Williams is still high off his Esteban Loaiza find, so don't be surprised to see him plucking underachieving veterans off the market for years to come. This year the big name is Robert Person, the former-15 game winner that fell off the face of the planet after a 2002 injury. He's only two years removed from usefulness, and even kept a high K rate in his short stint with the Red Sox. It's possible Person nabs a rotation job in Spring Training, which says less about the Sox than it does to compliment Person. Jackson and Santiago seem to be insurance that Billy Koch and Cliff Pollitte don't break down, but it's also entirely feasible one ends up with a middle relief job. Jackson's 2002 and Santiago's 2003 seem relatively similar, because they both kept ERAs down despite pretty bad peripheral numbers. The Sox organization is loaded with left-handers (Marte, Wunsch, Sanders, Munoz, Meaux, etc), so Darensbourg is probably in the wrong situation. He appears to be a 4-A pitcher that will get the inevitable cups of coffee for 15 games or so a year.

The team also made a few offensive moves yesterday, signing minor league infielders Bobby Smith, Kelly Dransfeldt, and Mike Bell to contracts, along with outfielder Marvin Benard. The infielders are Williams way of creating competition at second, which leads to asking, why again did they trade Aaron Miles? Bell and Dransfeldt are poor souls that never succeed, and are better suited for the Southern League than the International. Bobby Smith, on the other hand, has had four great IL years in the last five, but never gets it done at the ML level. He'll be tempting, but I guess when Willie Harris is the favorite, even Harold Reynolds would be appealing.

One big question surrounding Bernard is, can he still play centerfield? If so, the team's selection in him, and his selection of the White Sox make sense. He will make the team either way, but actually has a chance at a starting job in center. The competition will be between him, Aaron Rowand, and Jeremy Reed, whom I will label as the Proven Veteran, the favorite, and the rookie. Ozzie Guillen's choice will be reflective of his managerial style, something important to look out for in the early months.

All I know is, the White Sox are almost finished. With Bernard, Person, and Takatsu, the team's depth chart is up to 23 names. If we assume that Jackson, Santiago, or Darensbourg wins a rotation slot, we're at 24. That leaves one spot open for a hitter, and right now we only see Jamie Burke and Ross Gload vying for spots, yet more could be added later. The White Sox will need things to break right and for some people to bounce back in 2004 (see Konerko, Crede, Koch, Buerhle, Person) to contend. I see Kansas City and Minnesota as better teams at this moment, but time will tell. Tomorrow I'll be back on Maels Rodriguez, and his possible destinations.

(Thanks to japanesebaseball.com for all the Japanese statistics used in this article)