Ask BA

Ask BA fell by the wayside last week, as I was immersed in Draft Report Cards. The good news is that they’ve been completed for the issue that went to press, and they should appear online beginning next week.

Before we get to your questions, I’ll offer my World Series prediction: Tigers in five games. Nothing I’ve seen in the playoffs has done anything to change my mind that the four American League teams were the four best teams in the postseason.

    Can you explain to us why teams should get excited over Daisuke Matsuzaka? Doesn’t the track record of other high-profile Japanese pitchers such as Hideki Irabu, Kaz Ishii (and to a lesser extent, Hideo Nomo) show us that top-tier pitchers in Japan are anything but a certainty to be a top-tier pitcher in the United States? Is it solely his performance in the World Baseball Classic that has teams ready to pay $20 million just for the chance to sign him? How does he compare to free agents Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt?

    Chris Birckhead
    Hoboken, N.J.

    What can you tell me about this Daisuke Matsuzaka? What kind of stuff does he feature and what is his command like? What teams are interested and ultimately which team do you think will win the right to negotiate with him?

    Matt Alessi-Friedlander
    New York

While most of the players who have come from Japan to the United States have mirrored the status in their homeland over here, there have been exceptions. Irabu is probably the biggest, as the “Nolan Ryan of Japan” became the Chris Knapp of America. (You just have to love those similarity scores at But Nomo was a genuine star when he first arrived, Kazuhiro Sasaki saved 119 games in three years before he got hurt and Akinori Otsuka has far surpassed any expectations.

The bottom line is that Matsuzaka has a lively 90-96 mph fastball, a plus-plus slider, a splitter and a changeup. He has dominated in Japan and he dominated in the World Baseball Classic, where he was the MVP. In eight years in Japan, he has led the Pacific League in strikeouts four times, victories three times, ERA twice and won the Sawamura Award (the Japanese Cy Young Award) once. He has been a legend since his high school days, when he threw 250 pitches to win a 17-inning game in the quarterfinals of Japan’s national prep tournament’"then came back to get a save the next day and to throw a no-hitter in the finals two days after that. He’s also 26, so he should have a lot of pitching ahead of him.

Without hesitation, I would take Matsuzaka over Zito or Schmidt or any other pitcher who will be on the free-agent market this offseason. Similarly, if Matsuzaka does come over, he has to rank as the game’s best pitching prospect. His stuff is in the same class as Philip Hughes (Yankees) or Homer Bailey (Reds), and he has proven himself at a higher level.

It could cost $20 million to $30 million to win the rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka and at least twice that to sign him. Every big-budget team is expected to at least explore that possibility, and he’s worth more to a club that doesn’t already have a Japanese star because of the new revenue it could generate from Japanese TV and advertising rights. It’s just a guess, but I could see him winding up with the Rangers, who need pitching in the worst way and never have been afraid to spend exorbitantly on Scott Boras clients.

    I’m a big Elijah Dukes fan. I met him about a year ago and he was the nicest baseball player I’ve ever interacted with. He seemed like a great guy and I love his game. Last year he was left off of the Top 100 Prospects list. This year, in the time he did play around all of the suspensions and other issues, he showed even more progress and promise. Where do you think he’d rate among the Top 100 right now if he had no anger/makeup issues at all? I’d put him in the Top 10 easily, as he’s probably the best outfielder in the minors and should only be behind Delmon Young among outfielders with prospect eligibility.

    Aubrey Tianello
    Cape Coral, Fla.

Dukes’ makeup has been a concern since high school, and those worries aren’t easing up. He was suspended twice in 2005, and twice more this season. He also was placed on the temporary inactive list in May after an argument with Triple-A Durham hitting coach Richie Hebner, and didn’t exactly endear himself to the Devil Rays when he told USA Today, “Those guys up there [in the big leagues] shower in Evian. Here, we use sewer water.” Dukes later denied making that statement.

From a physical standpoint, however, it’s hard to find something not to like. Dukes is a 6-foot-2, 225 pound switch-hitter with huge raw power and arm strength, above-average speed and ever-improving control of the strike zone. He’s coming off a .293/.401/.488 season with 10 homers and nine steals in 80 Triple-A games, and he’s still just 22.

Even if we ignore makeup, I wouldn’t call Dukes the best outfielder in the minors. For all his tools, he has had steady but not spectacular numbers in pro ball. For instance, despite his massive power, he has exceeded 10 homers and a .500 slugging percentage just once in four pro seasons. Just off the top of my head, Cameron Maybin (Tigers), Andrew McCutchen (Pirates), Justin Upton (Diamondbacks), Billy Butler (Royals), Jay Bruce (Reds) and Carlos Gonzalez (Diamondbacks) are extremely talented players who have accomplished significantly more than Dukes had at similar stages in their careers.

Focusing solely on talent, I’d put Dukes in the 26-50 range on the Top 100. But his makeup continues to be an enormous negative, and looking at the entire package I wouldn’t put him on the Top 100 at all. At this point, it’s too much to expect that Dukes will stay out of trouble or maximize his talents.

    With Bryan Morris having Tommy John surgery, where do you think he’ll rank on BA’s Dodgers prospect list? Do you think it will take anything off his fastball when he comes back in 2008?

    Jason Debney
    Burbank, Calif.

The Dodgers promoted a wave of talent this season, and Chad Billingsley, Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Kemp no longer qualify as prospects. Yet Los Angeles still has one of the deeper farm systems in baseball, and competition to make our Top 10 list be fierce. (As always, we’ll give you a Top 30 in the Prospect Handbook.)

But the track record of pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery is so good that it doesn’t bother me much when I’m evaluating prospects. It’s nowhere near as career-threatening as, say a torn labrum. Having his elbow reconstructed will delay Morris’ ETA in Los Angeles by a year or so, but there’s no reason he can’t regain the stuff that made him a first-round pick in June. He pitched at 93-94 mph and topped out at 96 with his fastball this summer, and he had one of the very best curveballs in the 2006 draft.

We’ve started working on the AL clubs for the Handbook, and we haven’t talked much about the National League yet. I think Morris still will fit in the 6-10 range on our Dodgers list, but you’ll have to wait for our NL West Top 10 issue and the Handbook to come out in early 2007 to find out exactly where.

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