And now, the end is near . . .
The Red Sox would consider bringing back Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2013. They have not closed the door on it. They have spent the full $103 million on him — $51 million just to speak to him when they won the posting bid back in November 2006, and then the six-year, $52 million deal that is about to come to an end.
He won 15 games his first year, 18 games the next. But in the next four years, he was either bad or injured. He has been changed and modified so often that he probably doesn’t even resemble the pitcher the Sox signed. He also has a new elbow as a result of Tommy John surgery.
Was it a mistake to sign him?
The Sox probably would lean toward saying yes, it was. But those 33 wins in two seasons prevent you from calling him a full-fledged bust.
In spring training this year, he was so far ahead of schedule in his rehab from surgery that when you watched him, you said, “Wow, he looks great. The ball is really coming out of his hand. He’s popping the mitt like we’ve never seen.”
But there were hang-ups all year. There was a stiff neck that he couldn’t seem to get over. There was one thing after another. Even after a very good seven-inning stint in Pawtucket Tuesday night, Bobby Valentine reported that Matsuzaka had calf soreness.
“It’s not the first time that’s happened to me, so I’m not worried about it at all,” Matsuzaka said through interpreter Jeff Cutler.
But every little injury with Matsuzaka turns out to be a worry. In the year before his Tommy John surgery, he had forearm strains and elbow tightness. You could almost see it coming.
He’s 31 now (32 next month), though he does have that brand new elbow. So the Red Sox will watch him here over the next six weeks. What if he looks good? What if he is throwing better than he ever has? You have a pitcher who is more than willing to stay, because his family has settled here. He loves the school he’s sending his kids to.
While there will be a lure to return to Japan, Matsuzaka says he’d love to remain in Boston.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time in Boston, and my family has enjoyed our time here,” he said. “Of course I’d like to, but it’s too early to say where I’m going to be or to be talking about it.
“No matter how long I’ll be here, I’d like to wear this Red Sox uniform with honor and play hard for the rest of the season and do what I can to contribute to the team.”
He has always been respectful to the Red Sox. He has given good effort under sometimes confusing circumstances. His relationship with former pitching coach John Farrell wasn’t always the smoothest.
The cultural differences, too, were stark.
His routine of throwing all day in Japan was replaced by a more structured regimen and pitch counts. The Japanese balls were different from the major league balls, too. It took Matsuzaka quite a while to get used to the ball and the grip.
The types of pitches he got away with in Japan, he couldn’t get away with here. Farrell began to limit his repertoire so he’d throw two or three good pitches as opposed to four or five variations of offspeed pitches.
He drove us crazy with high pitch counts and walks. He’d load the bases and get out of it. Sometimes he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t challenge hitters, preferring to wait them out and get them out on his pitch.
None of us will ever know how difficult it was for Matsuzaka to transition to this culture and this way of pitching. But, obviously, it was complicated.
For now, all signs point toward Matsuzaka replacing the struggling Aaron Cook in the rotation next Tuesday.
“After my last start in Pawtucket I told Bobby and Randy [Niemann] I felt good and ready,” he said. “I haven’t talked to them. I’ll speak to them soon and a decision will be made then.”
Red Sox fans are probably tired of the Daisuke story and may feel that it’s time to cut ties. There is risk in that, though. What if his new elbow produces good results as he moves forward in his career?
The Sox could probably re-sign him cheaply, or even offer him a minor-league deal with a set figure for a major league contract. Some of the recent deals, such as Cook’s, have been for $1.5 million-$1.8 million. For an established starting pitcher, that’s pretty cheap.
“After I had the surgery, my body definitely felt better than it did before,” Matsuzaka said. “Which is a good thing. It’s been stressful and frustrating to have to fight through these injuries. I think I’m finally at a good place, and I hope to continue to feel better and better every time I pitch.”
The thing is, Matsuzaka is not one of those guys you have to get rid of to improve the team chemistry. He conducts himself professionally on and off the field. He wasn’t drinking beer and eating fried chicken.
If the Red Sox choose to move forward with him, they must make sure they have their five starting pitchers and could use Matsuzaka as a depth starter, perhaps having him in the minors in case there is an injury.
Unless, of course, Matsuzaka looks tremendous over the next few weeks.
And who knows what interest there will be in him if he does pitch well?
But we could be watching the end of what at the time was one of the most exciting events here in a long time — the signing of a phenom Japanese pitcher.
It fell far short of the hype.
And now, the end may be near.