ATLANTA— If Kenshin Kawakami passes his physical on Monday, then he will be the second starting pitcher Frank Wren has added to the Atlanta Braves rotation this offseason.
As we have been discussing on this site, Mr. Wren came into this offseason declaring Atlanta needed to add two top of the rotation starters this offseason in order to be competitive. This was obvious, after the meltdown season we endured last year. But in adding Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami, Mr. Wren has not exactly addressed Atlanta’s needs as I had hoped. Mr. Vazquez is hardly a top of the rotation pitcher- fitting better in a number 2 or number 3 position (and not even being all that great there). And Kawakami is projecting to be a 3 or 4 guy.
Who will be number 1? Tom Glavine is throwing without pain, so he could do it. But as much as I love the guy, I am just not certain we can rely on him for a full season. Plus, at his age, I am not sure he is number 1 material anymore. Jair Jurrjens is too young and does not have the stuff for a number 1 spot. Who will it be? That remains to be seen. With no clear front runner at the start of the season, we are entering 2009 with what will amount to being a middle of the line rotation, in my opinion. Good for third or fourth place in the NL East.
Here are the reasons I believe Kenshin Kawakami is a big-time gamble by Atlanta.
- He may be on the back-end of his career. His best seasons in Japan were three to five years ago. He won the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award in 2004. He had an arguably better season in 2006, when he went 17-7 with a 2.51 ERA. The last several seasons were relatively mediocre and last year he suffered through injuries.
- His stuff is only average. His fastball tops out around 90 miles an hour and he relies more heavily on breaking pitches. Granted, after watching Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine dominate the 1990’s with similarly weak fastballs, I recognize a smart pitcher can get by with slower stuff. However, that pitcher has to be really smart in the Major Leagues. For every one that does, there are plenty more that do not. Kawakami is going to be pitching in an entirely new league against the best hitters in the world. Where Maddux and Glavine came up facing top talent, Kawakami has cut his teeth in a talented, but ultimately inferior Japanese League. He will have to be a quick study if he wants to get by with his stuff.
- He may not have the stamina for a full major-league season. His career best in innings is only 215 innings pitched. The Japanese League plays a shorter season, which explains this. However, he only reached 200 innings one season in his career. Most seasons, he pitched between 160 and 180 innings. Last season, he only pitched 117 innings. After watching our rotation break down last year and cringing through three seasons of Chuck “No Stamina” James, I worry whether Kawakami is going to be up to snuff.
Nonetheless, the news on Kawakami is not all bad. Despite the above deficiencies, some of his statistics indicate he may have smarts I referenced in point 2 above. He has a career 1.14 WHIP in the Japanese leagues, which is equivalent to the WHIP Greg Maddux has produced throughout his career. Kawakami has accomplished this with impeccable control. This is very good news- being able to locate a fastball is more important than being able to throw it hard, in my opinion. He also has the ability to strike batters out, averaging 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Despite having what sounds like mediocre stuff, the guy apparently can use it effectively.
In the end, this was not the offseason Braves fans were expecting. After a decade and a half of big time deals and excitement heading into the regular season, I am not so sure I am excited about this year. This team could prove me wrong, but I will have to wait and see. I am afraid we are going to be battling the Marlins for third place this year, behind the Mets and Phillies.