Starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during a Major League Baseball game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Hiroki Kuroda isn't going back to Los Angeles this time, meaning two old rivals on the east coast might start to fight over him.
Hiroki Kuroda is one of the few high-quality arms on the free agent market this winter, along with C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle. While the latter two expect to get long-term deals with huge payouts, Kuroda is 38 years old, and has already settled into the world of one-year contracts at modest prices. Part of the reason for this was his desire to pitch in Los Angeles: without anyone else bidding, the Dodgers' fair offers were fine enough for Kuroda. That might change slightly this year, though, as the Dodgers don't have room for him any longer. All of a sudden, two of the biggest spenders in baseball are in on the Japanese-born hurler, according to Jerry Crasnick:
The Red Sox do not have much room in their budget this winter, and require either starting pitching or bullpen help. Whichever one they acquire will determine the roles of current relievers (but potential starters) Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. It's more likely Boston moves one to the rotation and leaves the other in the pen for depth purposes, meaning that at least one additional starter needs to be acquired through free agency or via trade.
Kuroda, who made $12 million in 2011, would likely take most of Boston's remaining budget, as they attempt to stay under the luxury tax threshold. But he would also give them a dependable fourth starter, something they have been lacking since 2008. This would make things easier for Bard or Aceves, depending on which of those two ends up starting, as neither pitcher would be expected to throw 180-200 innings in his first full-time season as a starter.
With spots one-through-four locked up with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Hiroki Kuroda, Boston would have four starters that are all capable of pitching deep into games, and approaching or crossing the 200 inning threshold. All of those pitchers have had injury troubles in the past, but except for Beckett's back, nothing chronic. This makes the bullpen's job easier, especially as already have to cover for Bard/Aceves in what would presumably be shorter starts.
The Yankees are in the same situation as the Red Sox, where they have a solid base for a rotation, but are lacking a strong middle. CC Sabathia is the top starter, and Ivan Nova put up a solid rookie campaign in 2011, but other than that it's anyone's guess. Freddy Garcia threw 146 innings in 2011 after 157 frames in 2010, making him something akin to Boston's fifth-starter spot, in the sense he will be a capable back-end starter in need of bullpen assistance. Phil Hughes might or might not ever turn into a dependable pitcher, and 2011 did nothing to support the notion of "might", thanks to a career-worst strikeout rate and 5.79 ERA to go along with right shoulder trouble.
A.J. Burnett is the wild card, as he's an ace or a mess, depending on the night. And the Yankees are shopping him, as Rob Neyer pointed out, likely in the hopes of acquiring someone more dependable -- the rotation already has enough question marks, and the other questions are far cheaper.
That leaves an obvious spot for Kuroda, either due to Burnett being shipped out, or Hughes shifting to the bullpen. If it comes down to just money, the Yankees can beat the Red Sox in this battle. But there are intriguing side possibilities to consider.
The Yankees might have the edge due to their catcher, Russell Martin. Martin caught Kuroda in Los Angeles through 2010, so the two are familiar. If Kuroda is getting offered the same amount by multiple teams, and has a chance to work with Martin again, that could break a tie. Conversely, Kuroda is Japanese, and always mentions going back to Japan, rather than pitching in MLB anymore. Bobby Valentine is the new manager of the Red Sox, and was a highly-successful skipper in Kuroda's home country. That's a different kind of familiarity, but it could appeal to Kuroda just the same.
Neither team needs Kuroda to survive the 2012 season, but clearly, both could benefit from him, especially since neither club seems interested in Wilson or Buehrle at their expected prices. It's still to be seen if Kuroda goes anywhere, as he has been a tease before, but these two clubs likely have the upper hand now that they are involved.