By Tim Brown, Yahoo! Sports
December 20, 2006
Good day, Akinori Otsuka.
You once saved the Texas Rangers from Francisco Cordero, who'd blown five save attempts before the 2006 season was four weeks old.
You then saved 32 games in 36 tries, driving a bullpen that logged 534 innings, a workload second only to Kansas City's in the American League.
You and a handful of others made just enough pitches to keep the Rangers in contention for most of the season.
And today, Aki, you are demoted.
Say hello to Eric Gagne.
Your bosses were kind enough to call, so that Gagne's ninth-inning coronation was not a total surprise during Tuesday's press conference in Arlington, Texas.
Except they called you a week ago.
Which was about a week before Gagne passed his physical.
As it turned out, his knee, elbow and back are fine. Well, fine enough.
So, the sentiment stands.
Held to the light, the X-rays showed you heading back to the eighth inning. Because the new closer has thrown 250 pitches since Oct. 10, 2004. Because he might throw his fastball 96 mph, and might throw it 89, and he might be able to test his knee/elbow/back from a mound by February.
But, this is the remarkable pull of Eric Gagne. Of 84 consecutive saves. Of 152 over three seasons. Of charisma and passion and "Welcome to the Jungle," three outs at a time.
And the knee. The elbow. The back. That's how you get him for $6 million guaranteed.
There's another way you get him. You promise him the last pitch.
"With Eric, that was somewhat of a prerequisite for getting him to come here," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said Wednesday morning. "He wasn't going to go somewhere to set up. That was one of the reasons we said it up front."
Step aside, Aki. But, don't go too far.
"Knock on wood," Daniels said, "we're expecting Eric to be OK."
A scout from an organization that needed bullpen help pulled me aside at the winter meetings two weeks ago in Orlando. To his disappointment, his club wasn't in on Gagne.
"I'm not sure he'll ever get his fastball back," he said. "But, I think he's going to be the next Trevor Hoffman. His changeup is that good."
Many scouts hold the same opinion. As changeups go, it's Hoffman, Johan Santana, Fernando Rodney, Gagne and few others. Hoffman is pitching off an 85-mph fastball, and going on 500 saves. Why can't Gagne pitch off 90, and get on with his career?
"Is it a big risk?" Daniels said. "Every player out there is a big risk. But, in a one-year commitment, if he is healthy, you have a chance to hit a home run."
In today's economic climate, $6 million (with incentives to reach $11 million, all based on, ahem, games finished) constitutes a flier.
In a division in which the Rangers finished 13 games out of first place, despite outscoring the Oakland Athletics by 74 runs and the Los Angeles Angels by 79, every pitcher matters. It is why the Rangers have gone to a sixth year in their offer to free-agent left-hander Barry Zito, betting that his next six seasons will look something like his last six, when he didn't miss a start.
All of which leaves you, Aki, alone in your break-out season, destined perhaps to count holds instead of saves. Your employers did what they had to do, and were respectful enough to be truthful about it, which is something.
The fact is, you'll see more of Hoffman in Gagne than just a changeup, and we know how you grew to adore Hoffman – and he you – in your two seasons in San Diego.
Gagne is an incredible teammate, often offering spare bedrooms to rookies and other newcomers. Russell Martin and Jason Repko are recent boarders. He even took Joe Beimel out for a couple beers in New York City, which, granted, did not work out so great for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And, he competes like Hoffman, maybe more. Because – and this is where you come in – he has competed himself to the disabled list more than once. Remember, his knee, his elbow, his back.
Again, don't go far.
"I do think he's disappointed, because I do think he wants to close," Daniels said. "He still has a tremendous impact on the course of this team. Given his growth curve, he is going to be disappointed by it. At the same time, this is about making the team better.
"We had a certain sensitivity to Aki's situation, because he certainly saved us last year, no pun intended. And I'm aware he's a prideful guy. He has tremendous makeup. All-world makeup."
It says something about Daniels and the Rangers that they would come clean, that they didn't mumble something vague about letting it play out. They wanted Gagne, just in case he was great again. They didn't have to guarantee all the money, but they did have to promise the ninth inning. Then they had to call you, Aki, and take your job back.
By their account, you took it the best you could.
"Ultimately," Daniels said, "it says more about Aki."
Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”. Follow him on Twitter. Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Wednesday, Dec 20, 2006 9:02 pm, EST
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