Sox sign Japanese lefty Okajima
Versatile reliever with big-game experience gets two-year deal
BOSTON -- If and when Daisuke Matsuzaka lands in Boston, he'll have a countryman by his side.
The Red Sox on Thursday announced the signing of 30-year-old Hideki Okajima, a left-handed reliever who could fill multiple roles in the club's bullpen in 2007. He was signed to a two-year deal with a club option for 2009.
While both Okajima and Matsuzaka share the bond of pitching success in Japan, Okajima says he did not sign just to get the highly regarded right-handed starter to sign on the dotted line.
"As a person, I've met [Matsuzaka], but we're not [close] friends. This was a good time for me to come over," Okajima said through a translator during an introductory news conference Thursday afternoon at Fenway Park.
"Certainly, we made this move today for Okajima san on [his] merits. He's going to be a valuable member of our bullpen," added Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein in announcing the signing. "If we do end up with two Japanese pitchers, that certainly would help the assimilation process, not only on the field but off the field."
Not only will Okajima be making the adjustment, but his wife and two children will be experiencing everything Major League Baseball has to offer.
"It's going to be a process for Hideki coming over to learn the ins and the outs of the baseball clubhouse and living in a new country," Epstein said. "Having someone going through the same process at the same time is always helpful."
What Okajima will bring with him is a reputation as one of Japan's most versatile relievers after he was one of the top setup men in Nippon Professional Baseball for the last several years. He has a 34-32 record with a 3.36 ERA and 41 saves in 439 games with the Yomiuri Giants from 1995-2005. He pitched for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters last season, going 2-2 with a 2.14 ERA and four saves in 55 games.
The native of Kyoto, Japan, has an overhand curveball as well as sharp command. Both helped him close games for the Giants, the Japan Series champions in 2000 and 2002.
He also features a genuine smile and charisma, both of which were on display as he held up his new Red Sox No. 40 jersey before an array of flashing cameras.
"Hello, hello. My name is Hideki Okajima and I like Boston," were the first words he uttered as a Red Sox reliever.
"We're always open to talent wherever we might be able to find it, and this was a particularly good crop of Japanese free agents and posted players," Epstein said. "[Director of international scouting] Craig Shipley and his staff did a fantastic job of following these guys, not just this year but over the last several years, and put in the work to put in an evaluation on the players."
Okajima's big-game experience was something Shipley felt would come in handy in Boston.
"Two thousand five for me was the first time I saw him," he said. "[International scout] John Deeble has seen him for a number of years before that. He has a very good overhand curveball and has good command. He can use his fastball on both sides of the plate. He throws two types of splits, one he throws for a strike and another when he's trying to get a strikeout or a swing and a miss.
"He has a lot of experience in big games in Japan. He's pitched in a number of roles in Japan, as well, as a starter and a closer. He's more than a situational left-hander."
Okajima's agent, Anthony Nakanishi, was also in attendance, and helped negotiate his client's entrance into Major League Baseball.
"[The Red Sox] were aware that he was just more than a situational pitcher for Nippon," Nakanishi said. "There were clubs offering more money, but they made the negotiating interesting."
Mike Petraglia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.