Kuroda brings toughness to Dodgers
Newly signed right-hander's grit draws GM's praise
LOS ANGELES -- Now that the Dodgers have Hiroki Kuroda, what exactly do they have?"As the game gets tougher," said general manager Ned Colletti, "he gets stronger. He turns it up a notch." Club evaluators believe the 32-year-old right-hander from Japan, who was introduced at a Sunday news conference at Dodger Stadium, will fit somewhere in the middle of the starting rotation. And like new center fielder Andruw Jones, Kuroda fills a hole without costing the Dodgers the kind of young talent that, say, the Diamondbacks gave up to acquire Dan Haren. "We had an objective of making the team better but not trading our young players who possess so much promise," said owner Frank McCourt. "I want to commend Ned and his staff for achieving that objective. Everywhere I go, people say stick with the young talent." Nobody is expecting Kuroda to be another Haren, even with a three-year, $35.3 million contract. With Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley returning, the Dodgers will be pleased if Kuroda is a solid fourth starter. The fifth starter will come from a group that includes Jason Schmidt and Esteban Loaiza, both looking to resurrect careers derailed by injuries. While fans clamor for a new third baseman like Scott Rolen, management is believed more interested in deepening the bullpen and bench, while letting Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche compete for third base in the spring. Colletti signed Kuroda without seeing him pitch in person. He left that to the scouting experts. Logan White, the assistant general manager who made his name through talent evaluation, saw enough tape of Kuroda and watched him in person enough to give the thumbs up. "I put my reputation on the guy," said White. "He's legit." Here's White's scouting report: "He has a very good delivery, an easy arm motion. He throws from a three-quarters angle. He runs his fastball anywhere from 89-95 miles per hour and stays around 93. He has a slider/cutter at 89 that has a lot of sharp, crisp bite. His out pitch is what he calls a forkball that has real diving, late action at the right-handed hitter.
"He's a strike thrower, and he's very athletic, a Gold Glove-like fielder. The biggest thing, for me, is that with runners on base, he buckles down. He really is a warrior."That's the word the Dodgers liked to use when they brought Hideo Nomo to the Major Leagues in 1995, blazing the trail for dozens of Japanese professionals like Kuroda to follow. Kuroda in 11 seasons with Hiroshima went 103-89 with a 3.69 ERA. For comparison purposes, Nomo was 78-46 with a 3.14 ERA when he came to the Dodgers; Kazuhisa Ishii was 78-46 with a 3.38 ERA when he arrived; and Takashi Saito was 87-80 with a 3.81 ERA. Kuroda was an All-Star the past three seasons and went 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA in 2007. International victories are a big deal for a franchise that is willing to disrupt the upcoming Spring Training with a goodwill trip to China. So the Dodgers held a gala Stadium Club introduction of Kuroda to media from near and far, on a Sunday afternoon. The turnout included the Dodgers' top brass and Kuroda's sizeable entourage from both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Kuroda explained that he accepted the Dodgers' deal over clubs like Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City, even though the Dodgers offer was for less money. "It is unbelievable. An unthinkable contract," he said. "To value me that highly is the result of Japanese players that have come here and succeeded. I'm very thankful for that." Kuroda listed decisive factors as the "well-developed" Japanese community in Southern California and the mild weather, "which is the best to pitch in from a performance standpoint." Weather, apparently, is no small issue for a 32-year-old who had bone chips removed from his elbow last winter by Angels doctor Lewis Yocum. Kuroda also made it clear that he welcomed the Dodgers' family approach that included a recent casual meeting in Japan with Saito assisting club officials in the recruiting effort. Ultimately, Kuroda chose the Dodgers over the Mariners, in part through the guidance of Shigatoshi Hasegawa, who pitched in both markets with the Angels and Mariners. Kuroda said he believed he would be more comfortable pitching for the Dodgers than any other club. It was initially believed that the Mariners had the inside track on Kuroda, but McCourt praised the Dodgers' Asian operations department for pulling off the coup, mentioning the work of director Acey Kohrogi, manager Curtis Yung, Japan-based scout Keiichi Kojima, cross-checker Paul Fryer and traveling secretary Scott Akasaki. Kuroda said he will move his wife and two young daughters to Los Angeles and will step up efforts to learn English.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.