Indians sign Japanese closer Kobayashi

The Indians today made their first-ever big league signing out of the Japan League, inking renowned closer Masahide Kobayashi to a two-year deal for $6.25 million, with a club option for 2010.  The righthander will collect $3 million in both 2008 and 2009, with a $3.5 million club option or $250K buyout in 2010.  In a market that has guaranteed two to three times as much to middling relievers, the Indians seem to have scored yet another value signing, although not one entirely without risk.

Full story per Indians.com and ESPN.com.

Kobayashi, 33, was Chiba Lotte's number-one draft pick in 1999, and has amassed a 2.79 career ERA over 445 games and 580 innings.  His 229 career saves put him third on the all-time list of the Japan League, behind Shingo Takatusi (289), who pitched briefly for the White Sox before returning in 2006, and Kaz Sasaki (252), who is also the career saves leader for the Seattle Mariners.  Similar to Kobayashi, Sasaki came over at age 32, signing a five-year, $30 million deal in 2000.  Despite great success in Seattle, he asked to be released from the final year of his deal (worth $9 million) to return to Japan with his family, who were unhappy in the U.S.

While not apparently a big strikeout guy, Kobayashi's fastball reportedly sits in the mid-90's, and he has a deceptive delivery that has been compared (perhaps lazily) to Hideki Okajima's.  Truth is, probably none of us has seen this guy, and he wasn't exactly on our radar.  As an unrestricted free agent, Kobayashi was free to negotiate with all teams and not required to go through the well-publicized posting system, in which teams bid for exclusive negotiating rights.  He reportedly would like to be a closer but wasn't going to insist on it, a sentiment that echoes comments from Joe Borowski a year ago.

UPDATE:  Keith Law weighs in here ...

Kobayashi has good stuff, although his strikeout rates in Japan were so-so due to his lack of a real out pitch. He works with a plus fastball in the 93-96 mph range that he gets on top of, getting good downhill plane, and he has a solid-average slider in the mid-80s with a hard downward break but little tilt; he'll also flash a forkball on occasion, which is a good fit given his release point and could be a good weapon for him against lefties. He's shown excellent control, with just 24 unintentional walks in his last 146 1/3 innings in Japan.
This move represents a continued focus on building quality depth in the bullpen, with every reliever from the Indians' late-season roster also under contract for 2008 and a number of prospects available in the minors on an as-needed basis -- "as needed" being synonymous with "as others are jettisoned."  While this move makes a trade for more bullpen help rather unlikely, it doesn't preclude another free agent signing.  There is nothing to stop the Indians from trading any of their current relievers if they find themselves with more relievers than they can use in the big-leagues or stash in Buffalo.

Okay, now ... you might as well start getting those Usual Suspects and hot-dog-eating jokes out of your systems right now.  Let's just hope this guy can eat some pie this season.

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