Mets, Astros must exercise caution in evaluating Daisuke Matsuzaka

It may not have been the most watched pitch in history, but the international implications were huge.  When Daisuke Matsuzaka took the mound on the afternoon of April 5, 2007 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, the whole world tuned in.  His first pitch in the bottom of the first inning to David DeJesus was broadcast around the globe.  Japanese media members outnumbered American journalists at the game.  It was Ichiro! and Hideki Irabu all over again - maybe bigger.

Now, as Matsuzaka searches for a new team - the Houston Astros and the New York Mets are interested - his health becomes one of the biggest concerns.  It could be the hurdle that Matsuzaka just can't clear as he tries to continue his career as a Major Leaguer.

The move was perhaps the biggest failure in then-Red Sox GM Theo Epstein's illustrious career.  Sure, he could fail on a grander stage still.  He's got plenty of time for that.  But for now, the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka could have been Epstein's legacy - a legacy he would not want for himself or his ball club.  The Red Sox paid $51.11 million for the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka in 2007.  Just to negotiate. Then, to get the deal completed, Theo Epstein and the Boston front office agreed to a six-year, $52 million contract.  For those keeping score at home, that essentially comes to six-years, $103.11 million for the Japanese pitching sensation.

And he was a sensation.  His name started making its rounds through Major League front offices well before the early parts of 2007 when the Red Sox made him theirs.  He became a target for clubs across the league years before, and if he wasn't a target, he was at least a pipe dream.  Prior to that 2007 season, Baseball America ranked Matsuzaka as the number one prospect - and that was before he ever threw a pitch to a Major League or minor league batter.  The ranking was based on his dominance in Japan.

At the age of 18, Matsuzaka made his debut for the Seibu Lions.  He started 25 games, went 18-5, and posted a 2.60 ERA.  And so it went in Japan.  From 1999-2006, Matsuzaka tore up the Japanese league.  He posted a sub-3.00 ERA in five of his eight seasons in Japan.  That normally grabs the attention of American scouts and executives.

So Theo Epstein and the Red Sox came calling.  They were no longer embattled in a Cold War with the New York Yankees.  The Red Sox had finally lifted their curse a little more than a year prior and won the World Series.  Now, Epstein and Boston simply wanted to keep their foot on the gas and not let the Yankees off the mat.  Money was of little concern.  They were playing by New York's rules now.  So Epstein pulled the trigger and paid $103.11 million for a player who had never thrown a pitch in the Majors.

The move drew immediate criticism, and much of that criticism gained traction when Matsuzaka went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA.  Epstein had mis-fired.  It was obvious.  The Red Sox had just sunk over $100 million into a dud.  Or had they?  The Red Sox once again won the World Series in 2007.  Nothing else mattered much at the time.  Then, in 2008 Matsuzaka broke out.  He went 18-3 and posted a 2.90 ERA.  He finished fourth in American League Cy Young voting.  Epstein was a genius.  He had found that diamond in the rough the Red Sox were looking for.  Sure he didn't pay diamond in the rough money, but Epstein was clearly a genius.  Or was he?

After the 2008 season, Matsuzaka would never post an ERA under 4.69.  He pitched four more seasons after that dominant 2008 campaign and he was worth -0.7 wins above replacement during that time.

Had Epstein not won two World Series with Boston, Matsuzaka's failure could have been his legacy.  But the truth is, Epstein had no way of knowing just how much the right-hander's body would break down once he came to the Majors.

The first shoulder injury came in 2008.  In May of that year, Matsuzaka hit the 15-day disabled list with a strained right shoulder.  The pain was coming from the rotator cuff, a troubling sign.  Of course, Matsuzaka returned and pitched well.  However, in April of 2009, the shoulder problems flared up again.  Matsuzaka was once again placed on the 15-day DL with a right shoulder strain.  He hit the 60-day DL in June of 2009 with shoulder weakness.  When he returned, his body continued to break down.  A back sprain in spring training of 2010.  A neck sprain in April of 2010.  Bilaterral shoulder sprains later in May of that year.  It was all coming apart and would eventually lead to the most devastating of all the injuries - a torn UCL.

In June of 2010, Matsuzaka was placed on the 15-day DL with a strained forearm - a likely precursor to the torn ulnar collateral ligament.  A year later, he was undergoing Tommy John surgery.  Could the numerous shoulder injuries have caused Matsuzaka to put more strain on his elbow?  It's possible.  That very first shoulder sprain in 2008 could have been the first domino to tip.  The rest came crashing down over the next three seasons and effectively destroyed any chance of Matsuzaka becoming the pitcher he could have been.

So as the Astros and the Mets evaluate the now-32-year old pitcher, they must use caution.  Any deal he signs will be minor league deal (most likely), but why waste a spot on the 40-man roster if Matsuzaka simply can't pitch anymore?  Even after returning from Tommy John surgery, Matsuzaka's injuries continued.  He suffered a back strain twice in the 2012 season.  And the more he injuries himself, the more concern is that he could once again put too much strain on his elbow and blow it out.

Matsuzaka will pitch again.  He will play the game he clearly loves.  Unfortunately, it may take Matsuzaka returning to Japan to continue his baseball playing career.  There is very little use in the Majors for an injury-prone pitcher who has lost velocity and control over time.  Even if that pitcher was once the biggest thing the international baseball scene had ever witnessed.

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