Last week, after they saw how much Seibu stands to make from posting Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Hanshin Tigers decided they would post their ace, Kei Igawa, as well, three years before he would have been eligible to to become a free agent.
In many ways, Igawa has been the second best pitcher in Japan the last several seasons, perhaps only after Matsuzaka. I saw him pitch back in 2003 when he was unquestionably the best pitcher in Japan. That season, he won an incredible 20 games (in a league that only plays 135 games a season) and led the Tigers to their first Japan Series in nearly 20 years.
Although Igawa’s stuff is not nearly as good as Matsuzaka’s, he has a lot to recommend him. First of all, he is a crafty lefty with a veteran’s poise and experience on the mound and a three-quarters delivery which is devastating against left-handed batters. He is only 27, which is only a year older than Matsuzaka. He is also known for having excellent control and has led the Central League in strikeouts in 2002, 2004, and 2006.
Besides, his stuff is not that bad at all. He has at least three major-league-quality pitches – a fastball that tops out at 93, a plus curveball with very good downward break, and an outstanding circle change which he uses to keep right-handed batters in check. His fourth pitch is a slider that scouts rate as only so-so by major league standards.
While Igawa certainly does not project to be the kind of ace that Matsuzaka is expected to become, I would imagine that he could be a solid and durable third starter, which is still worth quite a lot. I could also see him becoming a relief ace along the lines of a Takashi Saito.
Plus, while pretty much everyone had heard about Matsuzaka after his dazzling performance in the WBC and the myths about his supposed mystical “gyroball” pitch, Igawa has flown almost completely under the radar and can probably be gotten for a very reasonable price.