Drafting Dice-K a true roll of the dice

Drafting Dice-K a true roll of the dice

Daisuke Matsuzaka isn't the first Japanese pitcher to come to the Major Leagues, but indications are he's going to be the best. Well, that's what everyone is saying about the obvious choice for 2007 American League Rookie of the Year. It's not even a debate, right? Slam dunk, Dice-K is better than OK.

Well, not so fast. For a guy who is being selected in the first five rounds of many of his drafts, he'd better deliver numbers a fantasy owner would label as much better than OK. And I remain skeptical.

Frankly, I don't think Matsuzaka's previous numbers in Japan are all that relevant. Statistical experts tend to judge Japanese stats as something between the Triple-A and MLB level, but still, Hideo Nomo won 123 games in the big leagues with a 4.21 ERA, and Hideki Irabu, well, he didn't. We know more about how hitters' stats translate.

The Red Sox appear to get a clear upgrade in the middle of their rotation, as Matsuzaka slots in as the No. 3 guy, and pushes out either Matt Clement (who will likely miss a few months of the season anyway) or recovering Jon Lester, take your pick. Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon and Tim Wakefield would appear safe, though Papelbon, fantasy's No. 3 closer last season (behind only Joe Nathan and J.J. Putz) could shuttle back to the bullpen. I doubt that happens, especially now that Joel Pineiro has been signed and that problem has, ahem, clearly been solved! Regardless, we should assume Boston's new import gets every chance to make 30 starts. The question is, what will he do with them?

Well, not to be negative, but I have some concerns, firstly due to the potential for injury, and secondly because it takes people time to adjust to new surroundings. This guy isn't going to Houston or Cleveland, places where the transition would seem easier due to lessened pressure and media coverage -- he's going to Boston! Schilling makes news when he sneezes there.

Everyone reports about Matsuzaka's age, which is 26, but why does nobody discuss the fact he's pitched for eight seasons already? Huge red flag here, because that means a young arm was being abused in teenage years. Matsuzaka has had one significant arm injury, which cost him most of the 2002 season, but he did not have surgery. Frankly, if he had undergone Tommy John elbow surgery, I might view it more positively, since pitchers tend to come back stronger these days, but he didn't.

Matsuzaka is also renowned in his homeland for throwing 250 pitches in a high school game. Well, over here, the bullpen phone rings when a guy gets to 100. People wonder if Livan Hernandez can brush his teeth with his left arm, because his right arm just might fall off soon. Can you imagine how 250 pitches would be viewed in this country? They'd be discussing the abuse on Capitol Hill.

A look at some of the prominent Japanese starters in recent Major League history.
Hideki Irabu1997-028034-355.151.41
B.K. Kim1999-6544-524.151.33
Hideo Nomo1995-05318123-1094.211.35
Tomo Ohka1999-16248-584.041.38
Mac Suzuki1996-026716-315.721.65
Masato Yoshii1998-0211832-474.621.36

Fantasy owners have been trained to prepare themselves for the inevitable Carlos Zambrano arm injury, often letting it affect his draft status just a bit, so how is Matsuzaka any different? While Matsuzaka might be able to survive the abuse his arm has been dealt and be the next Nolan Ryan, a freak who kept on throwing 200 innings year after year, even the most eternal optimist has to be prepared for some missed time. It might not be in 2007, but it's coming, eventually in this contract term. And Matsuzaka isn't known for a 98 mph fastball, but for off-speed stuff.

ESPN and Baseball Prospectus injury guru Will Carroll has said Matsuzaka, with his size and throwing motion, could compare to Roy Oswalt. I've also heard the Roy Halladay comparisons. Fantasy owners would surely take that. Separately, while fantasy owners concern themselves with strikeout totals, not how the pitcher gets them, Matsuzaka's infamous "gyro" pitch also could contribute to elbow wear and tear, though that point has been debated. Really, at this point we don't know, since it's a new phenomenon. But we do know he won't be pitching in Dodger Stadium half the time, but in a hitter's haven. And until I see him with Halladay numbers, the jury remains out.

Injury concerns aside, what numbers should we expect if he makes 30 starts? Well, Matsuzaka will get run support. We know that. The Red Sox cross the plate with the best teams, enough that Beckett could fashion a 5.01 ERA and still win 16 games in his Beantown debut. Runs get scored at Fenway by road teams as well. That also means that an ERA in the low 3.00's seems unlikely. Hitters might struggle against Matsuzaka early on, but MLB teams do have tape on the guy, and some players have already faced him before. This isn't like when Albert Pujols came out of Class A and pitchers didn't know how to deal with him.

My guess is that Matsuzaka finishes with a generous win total, like 15 or so, but an ERA of around 4, and 150 strikeouts. Could be better, could be worse. What's that worth in fantasy? That makes for a solid No. 3 starter on a staff in a 10-team league, worthy of being selected in the ninth or 10th round, I suppose. Beckett, for example, was the 91st player taken in ESPN average live drafts in 2006, the No. 17 starting pitcher. Would I rank Matsuzaka in the top 20 for starting pitchers right now? Probably right around there, but I have to admit, I would trust Dan Haren, Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana and players of that ilk a bit more. They've proven themselves in this country, and don't have the same pressure or injury potential.

Of course, I'm guessing in your league Matsuzaka's going to go a whole lot higher than those fellows! Who doesn't want to play the game of upside? There is, after all, serious upside here.

Frankly, the Yankees' Kei Igawa appears to have better value for where they are each going in drafts than Matsuzaka, unless Dice-K is awesome and Igawa flops. But what if their stats look similar? I could see it. Igawa was a Japanese strikeout champ only a few years ago. Gonna feel pretty silly when you're the one taking Matsuzaka in Round 5 while Igawa goes undrafted, aren't you?

Me? I'll probably take a lot of hitters early, and take the safe route with a known pitching commodity early in my drafts.

And I'll take my chances letting someone else get possibly the best Japanese pitching import ever.

Eric Karabell is a deputy editor/senior writer for ESPN.com. He has covered fantasy sports for ESPN since 2001, specializing in baseball and football. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.