CLEVELAND -- It didn't take a $51 million posting fee for the Indians to land the right to speak with Masa Kobayashi, and Kobayashi doesn't have the same repertoire as one of his country's more famous big league imports. "I don't throw the gyroball," Kobayashi said with a smile Tuesday, through interpreter Kenta Yagi. But what the right-handed Kobayashi does have is a track record that wooed the Indians into signing him to a two-year Major League contract with a club option for 2010. Kobayashi is reportedly guaranteed $6 million over the two years, with a $3.25 million option for '10 or a $250,000 buyout.
The Tribe's hope is the 33-year-old Kobayashi can bolster the back end of their bullpen and provide closing depth, should something go wrong with Joe Borowski. "If we're as good a team as we think we're going to be, there are going to be many opportunities to pitch in meaningful situations in the late innings," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "That's what we envision for him." And while Tuesday's transaction, officially unveiled at a press conference at Jacobs Field, might not make the headlines that Daisuke Matsuzaka's deal with the Red Sox did a year ago, the Indians view it as the first tangible benefit of their increased efforts to scout the Far East and a major item crossed off their offseason to-do list. The Indians had the fourth-best relief ERA in the American League last season, the league's saves leader in Borowski and two of its most dominant setup men in Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez. But knowing the fickle nature of big league bullpens, the team has sought to protect itself against injuries or ineffectiveness in the back end of the 'pen. Enter Kobayashi, who spent the last nine seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japanese Pacific League and is one of the more accomplished closers in his country's history. He saved at least 20 games in each of the last seven seasons, and he tallied 227 saves and a 2.79 ERA for his career in Japan. Don't confuse him with Takeru Kobayashi. The Indians aren't signing this player to boost hot dog sales at The Jake. Kobayashi was an unrestricted free agent, so the Indians did not have to pay a posting fee to Chiba Lotte to negotiate with him. Nate Minchey, an international scout for the Tribe, saw Kobayashi pitch six or seven times this past season, and club scouting director John Mirabelli saw him live twice, as well. What they saw was a confident strike-thrower with a three-pitch mix that includes a fastball that maxes out in the mid-90s, a two-seam fastball that cuts in on right-handers and a mid-80s slider with a hard, downward break. Kobayashi also has a deceptive delivery that some have compared to that of the Red Sox's dominant left-handed setup man, Hideki Okajima.
"His slider is his out pitch," Mirabelli said. "He can throw it any time for strikes. His strength is he's very durable. He's resilient, he can go day-to-day, and he has experience. Put the sum of all those parts together, and you've got a pretty good pitcher." Still, in signing Kobayashi, the Indians, who are usually leery of granting multi-year contracts to relievers, are taking a risk that his stuff will play out in the States. "I'd give every player a one-year deal, if I had my choice," Shapiro said with a smile. "But the market is what the market is. We're talking about a guy who has a very consistent track record of closing ballgames. That consistency makes us comfortable with a two-year deal." Only two Japanese pitchers, other than Kobayashi, have had 200 or more saves in their careers -- Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shingo Takatsu, both of whom have pitched in the Majors. Kobayashi was a member of the Japanese Olympic team in 2005 and the Lotte team that won the Japan Series in 2005. But Kobayashi struggled a bit in 2007, losing a career-high seven games and putting up a 3.61 ERA in 49 appearances. He spent some time on the injured list toward the end of the year with what was labeled "neck irritation," but both Kobayashi and Mirabelli said that was a phantom injury used to send the pitcher down on the farm for a short time after his club had clinched a playoff berth and other pitchers needed innings. Kobayashi was back in the mix for the Japanese playoffs. "I feel healthy," said Kobayashi, who passed the Indians' physical examination Tuesday morning. Now, he has to feel up to the challenge of acclimating to life in a new country and a city he's almost completely unfamiliar with. "Beautiful lake," he said when asked about his knowledge of Cleveland, "and the city has the Indians." That's all he knows. The Indians know they'll hire a full-time translator to smooth Kobayashi's transition, and they expect him to mesh well with a roster already comprised of players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Korea, as well as the U.S. "Baseball is rapidly becoming a multi-cultural game," Shapiro said. "With the kind of attitude our players have, they're going to embrace him and make him feel like part of the team." Kobayashi wasn't eligible for free agency until this year. Once he made the decision to head to the Majors, the Indians were among his most aggressive suitors. "The Indians showed the most interest in me," he said. "I knew the Indians were one of the best teams in Major League Baseball. I was so impressed that they had interest in me."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.