Blunder, Be Gone!
I was happy when it happened.
Even though we didn't get Tejada despite his history with Art Howe, we got the next best thing.
That winter day, I was excited. I watched the press conference. I watched him place a 1986 championship ring on and I listened as he would say his first and last English words: I love New York.
But it was all downhill from there. Kazuo was supposed to be a great shortstop. A power hitter, a stolen base threat and a slick fielder. Fan favorite Bobby Valentine, pioneer of Japanese baseball, told us he would surely be great.
Look at these numbers:
1996: .283/.307/.357/1 HR/29 RBI/50 SB/22 2B/5 3B (130 G)
1997: .309/.362/.431/7 HR/63 RBI/62 SB/23 2B/13 3B (135 G)
1998: .311/.370/.442/9 HR/58 RBI/43 SB/38 2B/5 3B (135 G)
1999: .330/.389/.482/15 HR/67 RBI/32 SB/29 2B/4 3B (135 G)
2000: .322/.372/.560/23 HR/90 RBI/26 SB/40 2B/11 3B (135 G)
2001: .308/.365/.496/24 HR/76 RBI/26 SB/28 2B/2 3B (140 G)
2002: .332/.389/.617/36 HR/87 RBI/33 SB/46 2B/6 3B (140 G)
2003: .305/.365/.549/33 HR/84 RBI/13 SB/36 2B/4 3B (140 G)
Pretty good for a player blossoming into his own, with power growing with age. Doubles machine with good power and above average SB. Now look at these numbers.
2004: .272/.331/.396/7 HR/44 RBI/14 SB/32 2B/2 3B (114 G)
2005: .255/.300/.352/3 HR/24 RBI/6 SB/9 2B/4 3B (87 G)
2006: .200/.235/.269/1 HR/7 RBI/2 SB/6 2B/0 3B (38 G)
They appear to have been put up by a different player. Vanished are the great HR and 2B numbers. Some of that comes with facing tougher American pitching. Japanese pitchers typically don't throw as hard, save for Daisuke Matsuzaka.
But Jason Grimsley made me think this week. Kaz's 2004, despite a terrible defensive effort at short, was not much of a difference from his previous numbers. Sure, it would have been a down year, and he was woeful slugging, but he would have hit about 12-15 HR and 40 2B if he didn't miss most of August and September. In 2005, MLB attached penalties to positive steroid tests. Power started to disappear. Justin Morneau hit more homers than Sammy Sosa. And Kaz Matsui's promising career at the plate also went away.
I didn't want to think it, at first, with Kaz's smiling face and undying work ethic. He never said one sour word about the fans who made it their goal to break his spirit. But like how accused juicer Miguel Tejada is a thoroughly natural 5' 9", 220 lb., weighing about 50 pounds more than his second baseman, Brian Roberts, of the same height, Kaz Matsui's numbers made no sense. I never saw him play in Japan and have only seen snippets of video, but his stats made little or no sense watching him steroid-free the last two years. I can't remember him getting more than ten balls over the past two years to the warning track on the fly.
One more important thing: There was no steroid testing in Japanese baseball when Matsui starred for the Seibu Lions. I liked Matsui and valued him as a player who was about helping the team. I know he was also not emotionally healthy in New York, as the pressurized environment clearly did not sit well with him. He performed admirably coming off the DL last September and won a job. He played well supplanting Anderson Hernandez at 2B at the start of this season. Things, as has been the pattern since arriving in America, went downhill for Kaz after that. This year he played much better defensively than ever before, outdoing Valentin and Woodward at second base, while trailing only faint memories of Anderson Hernandez's magic in the field and circus catches.
He failed at the plate soon after that. Although he smacked a key double against the Braves in the Victor Zambrano Remarkable Exit Game to gain a temporary reprieve, he fell from that point. And after Jose Valentin found his stroke, Kaz was officially supplanted at second base. Willie had to be careful to say that Valentin was not "the second baseman" if only because that would make Kaz Matsui's value zero minus whatever was left on his contract. If he could only play second, and Valentin was the second baseman, Kaz would be confined to pinch-hitting. And he's a career .185 pinch-hitter who clearly needs to see pitchers a bit before facing them.
Second base has been cursed for the Mets since Robbie Alomar replaced Edgardo Alfonzo, who coincidentally was also a likely steroid user. Alomar fell apart in New York, watching his average plummet and finally calling it a career during the middle of a 2005 Devil Rays spring training game. Alfonzo's career has also vanished too, as he has posted a .111 average on the season with the Angels and Blue Jays. He's driven in 4 runs in 28 games.
Kaz and most of what's left on his contract for journeyman utilityman Eli Marrero isn't exactly a fair deal in the upside category. He's a .244 career hitter with a mere 64 HR to his name. He's played for the Cardinals, Braves, Orioles, Royals and Rockies, the last four teams coming in the last four years. Marrero is versatile, though, having played left field and right field this year as well as catcher and first base. Marrero's niches are already filled nicely on the team by Endy Chavez, Lastings Milledge, Julio Franco and Ramon Castro, but the Mets made this trade for one reason. He's not Kaz Matsui. He won't inspire booing unless he fails, and even in that case it will certainly not contain the tenacity and ferocity that Kaz's did.
This blog wishes the former Met best of luck in Colorado Springs (AAA) while he tunes up as an everyday player at shortstop and second base. In all honesty, it's a situation which will benefit both parties. Matsui can get some everyday time in the thin air and the Rockies can take a free gamble on an athletic player who can spell starting shortstop Clint Barmes, who is presently batting .212. All in all, the Kaz Matsui experiment was a gamble that didn't pay off. But everyone involved deserves a little bit of credit for trying. Best of luck to JoVal as well.