Orioles, Uehara agree to terms

Orioles, Uehara agree to terms

BALTIMORE -- Finally, the Orioles' starting rotation is beginning to come into focus. The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday that the Orioles have reached an agreement on a two-year contract with Japanese free agent Koji Uehara, a deal that apparently hinges on some specific contractual language and a physical examination to be conducted later in the week.

The Orioles were not immediately able to confirm the report, but their pursuit of Uehara and fellow countryman Kenshin Kawakami has been well-documented. Baltimore's effort to sign Uehara may have been aided substantially by a preexisting relationship with agent Mark Pieper, who also represents second baseman Brian Roberts and former staff ace Erik Bedard.

Baltimore came into the offseason with just one rotation slot filled, and that's the one belonging to Jeremy Guthrie, who started for the Orioles on Opening Day of last season. Baltimore has also signed versatile veteran Mark Hendrickson this winter, a move that is designed to give the Orioles an experienced starter who can also relieve if the situation calls for it.

Uehara has that same type of pedigree, but the Orioles are looking at him solely as a starter. Uehera has spent his entire career with the Yomiuri Giants, and he served as a closer for part of the 2007 season. The veteran has won the Japanese equivalent of the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards, and he'll turn 34 shortly before the '09 season begins.

Uehara has twice won the Sawamura Award, which is presented annually to the best starting pitcher in Japan. In fact, Uehara is one of just three pitchers -- along with Masaki Saito and Kazumi Saito -- who have won the award more than once over the last 20 years. Other notable winners include Kawakami, Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kei Igawa and Yu Darvish.

The right-hander is an eight-time All-Star in his native land, and he earned that accolade in each of his first seven seasons. Uehara was also named as an All-Star in 2007, when he recorded 32 saves in his first season as a full-time reliever.

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Uehara hasn't just starred in his homeland. He's also been a standout in international competition. He was a member of Japan's 2004 bronze-medal-winning Olympic team and also earned two victories in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, which was won by his nation. He also competed for Japan in the 2008 Olympics, earning a fourth-place finish.

The Orioles continue to search for rotation help, a hunt that has reportedly linked them to Kawakami and domestic free agents Tim Redding and Braden Looper. Baltimore decided not to tender a contract offer to Daniel Cabrera earlier in the winter, ending his five-year run in the rotation and leaving Guthrie as the only sure holdover from last year's starting staff.

Baltimore's decision-makers have said several times that they'd like to lessen the strain on the team's existing batch of pitching prospects, a desire that hinges on finding veterans who are ready to assume the job on Opening Day. The Orioles still have more than a month until Spring Training begins, and their staff should get some much needed clarity over the next few weeks.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.