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Decision on Matsuzaka expected to go their way

NAPLES, Fla. -- The lure for the Japanese baseball fan will be watching the matchup between Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Matsui.

Evidently, a Japanese rivalry within the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is blockbuster good.

"This story is huge," said Sports Nippon baseball writer Hideki Okuda. "It's huge news because Matsuzaka has become a national hero, and now with the posting -- if it's true that it's more than $40 million -- people look at that as crazy money, not only in Japan but everywhere."

Matsuzaka's current team, the Seibu Lions, held a news conference last night, but only to say there will be a simultaneous announcement with Major League Baseball tonight on the status of the pitcher's posting, the process in which US teams can bid for the right to negotiate for his services.

Multiple sources indicated last night that the Lions will announce they have accepted the top bid, which ESPN's Peter Gammons reported will be the Red Sox' $42 million offer (though some peg it closer to $50 million). Once the high bid is accepted, the team that made it will have 30 days to work out a deal with Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras.

Even on the verge of this historic overture, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein -- who again declined comment on anything concerning Matsuzaka -- made two other offers on free agent pitchers, whom he would not identify.

For the rest of the baseball people here for the general managers' annual meetings, Boston's acquisition of Matsuzaka seems only a formality, though there's always the potential for negotiations to get sticky.

"I've watched him on video," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, "and with his stuff, he could win 25 games in our league."

Though Matsuzaka is a popular player in Japan, the Lions play in Japan's Pacific League, which is not as high-profile as the Central League. The Red Sox-Yankees element to Matsuzaka's signing would provide great drama in Japan.

"The Red Sox-Yankees series will have new meaning to people in Japan because you have one of the best hitters against one of the best pitchers," said Yasuko Yanagita of the Hochi Shimbun sports newspaper.

"Boston is a popular team because they won the World Series not so long ago, and if Matsuzaka plays for them and Matsui plays for the Yankees, it will create excitement."

According to Yanagita, David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez are also popular in Japan, and adding Matsuzaka to the mix will draw more attention to the Red Sox, especially when they play the Yankees.

Yanagita thinks the acquisition of Matsuzaka would put a lot of Japanese reporters on the Red Sox beat full-time. When Matsui joined the Yankees, there were more than 150 Japanese media at the team's spring training camp in Tampa, and now 30-50 reporters and TV crews follow Matsui.

"People will want to see how Matsuzaka pitches Matsui," said Okuda. "The Yankees are probably the most popular team in Japan and many Red Sox-Yankees game are shown on TV. They understand the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry and now they'll have this added to it."

Epstein worked for the San Diego Padres under Larry Lucchino when the Padres bought Hideki Irabu's contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1997. Irabu did not want to play for the Padres and demanded a trade to the Yankees, which he got, but it was that incident that provided the impetus for Major League Baseball and Japan to work out a posting system.

Epstein, who did acknowledge that his international staff had scouted Japan more this year than other years because of the quality of available talent, would not say which US free agent pitchers he made offers to, though speculation at the meetings has linked the Sox to everyone from Barry Zito to Jason Schmidt to former Toronto reliever Justin Speier.

Epstein said he had not made an offer on free agent outfielder J.D. Drew, who appears to be on Boston's list of potential candidates to replace Trot Nixon in right field. Epstein still could offer Nixon arbitration and the GM also noted the Sox have a strong internal candidate for the job in Wily Mo Peña.

Epstein did indicate he would make offers on multiple players before the meetings conclude Thursday. Those could include Julio Lugo and a lefthanded reliever, as well as Drew. There has been some discussion about lefty Scott Schoeneweis, who was with the Blue Jays and Reds last season.

Epstein also announced that Gary Tuck would become the Sox' bullpen coach, while Ralph Treuel, who took over as bullpen coach when Al Nipper became interim pitching coach, would return as the minor league pitching coordinator.

Nipper is being considered for a job in the Sox organization and Epstein also said he's looking for an infield specialist to coach first base. He hopes to have an internal choice, and it could be former Sox infielder Luis Alicea. Third base coach Demarlo Hale, who also coached infielders last year, will coach outfielders.

Epstein said he hopes to give lefthanded-hitting catcher George Kottaras another full development year in Triple A, meaning the team could consider bringing back Doug Mirabelli or adding a veteran backup.

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