Uehara deal marks historic day for O's
MacPhail says pitcher means as much symbolically as on mound
BALTIMORE -- Finally, the Orioles are a team without borders. Baltimore reached beyond the traditional means of procuring talent Wednesday, when it celebrated the signing of Koji Uehara, the organization's first Japanese player. Uehara, a prominent pitcher on his side of the Pacific, will immediately step into the Orioles' rotation.
Baltimore president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said that Uehara will mean as much symbolically as he does on the mound. The right-hander is indicative of a new way of thinking for the Orioles, and his presence demonstrates that MacPhail will attempt to add outstanding talent from any stream available.
"This is a historic day for the Baltimore Orioles," said MacPhail, "as we get the opportunity to welcome our first-ever Japanese player. I think when you're the first of anything, there's a special burden that you carry ... and we're very fortunate as an organization to have a pitcher that is as celebrated and accomplished as Koji Uehara."
The Orioles offered a two-year deal worth at least $10 million to Uehara, who signed the contract in full view of an assembled media corps that included 25 Japanese reporters on Wednesday. The veteran also tried on the team's cap and jersey during his introductory news conference. Afterwards, he walked downstairs to test the mound at Camden Yards.
Uehara, who spent his entire Nippon Professional Baseball career with the Yomiuri Giants, brings an impressive resume. The 33-year-old won the league's Rookie of the Year Award and is one of just three players in the past 20 years to have twice won the Sawamura Award -- annually awarded to the league's best pitcher.
Uehara was also an eight-time All-Star in his native land, including selections in each of his first seven seasons, once as a full-time closer. The Orioles value his command and control -- best evidenced by a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.68 -- and believe that his style of pitching will help teach some of his younger teammates how to thrive.
"Actually, I haven't heard that much about the Orioles," Uehara said to the assembled press corps via interpreter Kenta Yagi. "I heard they have good young talent on their team, and I'm very happy for that."
"You can't be an all-time All-Star and a two-time Cy Young Award winner without demonstrating some of those intangible things that I think are important for anybody to compete and win at this level," said MacPhail. "He has done it, not just in the Japanese league, but whenever he has gone out to compete internationally. I think that's going to be an asset to those young pitchers that we hope to bring up through the system."
The Orioles still see their rotation in a bit of disarray, so much so that they're only certain of Uehara and staff ace Jeremy Guthrie cementing starting jobs. Veterans Mark Hendrickson and Danys Baez may also challenge for a rotation berth in Spring Training, but Guthrie and Uehara may well end up surrounded by a fleet of young arms.
And Uehara, who will turn 34 shortly before Opening Day, is up for the challenge. The veteran has a 112-62 career record with a 3.01 ERA in Japan, but he knows he'll be judged by how he fares against big league hitters.
"This is my second-life stage as a professional baseball player. Today is just Day 1 for me. It's exciting," he said of his big league transition. "The Orioles were one of the teams that showed me their big interest and enthusiasm from the beginning of the offseason. That was the main reason we came to this conclusion."
Uehara isn't completely untried when it comes to facing Major League-caliber opposition. He went 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA for eventual champion Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, and he's also pitched for his homeland in each of the past two Olympics. Now, he'll test himself at the highest level the sport has to offer.
Orioles director of international scouting John Stockstill seems certain that Uehara will thrive in the Majors. Stockstill saw Uehara four or five times in Japan, and he also solicited opinions from several other sets of eyes. And in the end, there was an easily reached consensus that said Uehara would fit perfectly in Baltimore.
"There were three or four things that came into play, [including] Koji's desire to be a starter at the Major League level and our need for starting pitching," said Stockstill of the process. "His history speaks for itself -- his production, and the command of the strike zone and the strikes that he throws. But more importantly than all of that, we have some 12 opinions that we've gauged that are all consistent that he'll he be a successful starting pitcher here. ... He has everything, including the ability to throw strikes and command the strike zone with all pitches."
Not only will Uehara help immediately, he may pay further dividends down the road. MacPhail has talked extensively about the need to diversify internationally, and now he can point to a specific accomplishment. If he has his way, Uehara will be just the first in a wave of international signings that serve to deepen Baltimore's talent pool.
"We do plan on further expansion," MacPhail said. "At the same time, we have to be somewhat selective. Our resources are not unlimited, so we need to try to put them in a place we think they'll reap the greatest rewards.
"I also think you have to do more than lip service to say we're going to create an international scouting department and we're going to expand our borders. Right to my left is a tangible example of that, and probably far earlier than I anticipated. What John has helped us accomplish in Japan has been much more significant and much earlier than I expected. Along with that, we have the brand new facility that we just opened last summer in the Dominican Republic. I think this is an example that we've been doing the things we set out to do."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.