01/10/09 6:04 PM EST
Busy Red Sox add reliever Saito
Ex-LA closer joins Penny, Smoltz, Baldelli as Boston signees
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
If not for the right elbow injury that limited Saito for much of the second half last season, it's doubtful the Dodgers would have non-tendered him in December.
"He's done an amazing job since coming over from Japan three years ago," said Epstein of the former Dodgers closer. "If you look at his performance and how he's gone about it the last three years, he's been just about as good as anyone in baseball. We were pleased to see him available in free agency, and we engaged and wanted to see if we could work out a contract that made sense for all the sides, and we did."
By doing so, the Red Sox added a pitcher who has 88 career saves and a 1.95 ERA in 180 games. In 2008, Saito posted a 2.49 ERA in 45 appearances.
"We think he's going to be a big addition to our bullpen, so we can't wait for Spring Training to get started and see him in a Red Sox uniform," Epstein said.
Of course, the right-hander won't get all that many opportunities to close as long as Jonathan Papelbon is healthy. But Saito, who will turn 39 in February, gives the Red Sox yet another quality setup arm alongside Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Martinez and Javier Lopez.
How, exactly, Saito fits in will be determined by the end of Spring Training.
"Part of becoming a player on a new team, there's always going to be competition from within camp," Saito said. "You're always competing for a certain role on the team. At the end of the day, when your teammates understand that you're going into the competition together, that, in the end, leads to good team chemistry. That being said, I'm just going to go out there and do the best I can and contribute to this team the best way I can. However I can help this team win, that's what I'm going to do."
With so many quality arms in the bullpen, Epstein might have a chance to use that depth to his advantage in a trade this winter, particularly if he can reel in that catching prospect he has been seeking. Or he can just go in to Spring Training with an overload of bullpen depth, something that could pay big dividends in July when other contending teams are desperate for quality relievers.
"We have some pretty significant depth in the bullpen, and I think you need that depth," Epstein said. "There's not a team in baseball that at some point during the season isn't out there looking to add more pitching. We think by being aggressive this winter, and by taking educated gambles on some pitchers, we have a chance to build that depth now at the right price rather than during the season, when it's very difficult to do and you have to give up prospects."
During the first half of last season, bullpen instability was a big problem for Boston. In 2009 the 'pen, at least on paper, is a major strength of the club.
"There's a real upside here," Epstein said. "That's significant. Takashi has been a dominant pitcher in the Major Leagues. We already have Papelbon at the end of our bullpen, so we think we have a chance, provided the health is where we need it to be, to roll a number of guys out there who have a chance to dominate. With the hitters that we'll face in the American League East, I think that's important."
In 2008, Saito was part of a Los Angeles team that went deep into October, losing to the Phillies in the National League Championship Series. But Saito pitched just once in the postseason after being on the disabled list from July 13 to Sept. 15.
"I feel great," Saito said. "When I came back toward the end of last season, I was still throwing 93, 94 miles per hour. I just needed some more time to get my control and my command, but the velocity was there, and my elbow was feeling great. I didn't have any problem with my shoulder or elbow or my arm or any part of my body. As of now, the elbow is still fine. I feel great. I'm confident it will hold up the rest of the season."
According to FOXSports.com, Saito's deal includes a guarantee between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. He could also earn more than $7 million if he reaches all of his incentives.
Saito fits into the same profile as the other players Epstein has added in the last couple of weeks, all of whom are coming off injury-marred 2008 seasons after being successful in the past. The list includes Josh Bard, Brad Penny, Rocco Baldelli and John Smoltz.
"I think the uncertainty surrounding the economy was a factor in our strategy to a certain extent," said Epstein. "If there's uncertainty and the possibility for a real downturn, it makes sense to keep your commitments as short as possible, and as small as possible. If you look at our commitments going forward, relative to some of the other big-market clubs, I think we have tremendous flexibility. But at the same time, we have a lot of talent under our control for a long time, a lot of young talent. You never know in baseball, but we hope that's a sound approach to dealing with the uncertainty ahead, but only time will tell."
During Spring Training, as he gets acclimated to his new team, Saito should be comforted by the presence of three other Japanese pitchers in Daisuke Matsuzaka, Okajima and Junichi Tazawa.
"I'm very excited, obviously there is excitement playing for a new team," Saito said. "I know that obviously Daisuke and Okajima are there right now, and I've met them several times in the past. I also understand that there is a lot of Japanese staff working with the team. Atmosphere-wise, it's going to be a very nice fit for myself. I'm just very, very excited to be a Red Sox right now."
And why did he pick the Red Sox?
"The biggest thing is that flat out, they are a contender," he said. "I think every professional athlete playing in sports is always going to want to win. We're always playing for that championship ring, and I think the Red Sox have a very high possibility to achieve that goal. That's the biggest part of me winding up with the Red Sox."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.