Good morning Fackers. Well I would have bet you a dollar that last week's Winter Meetings would be the peak of the Hot Stove League. Then yesterday happened. We'll get to all the hullabaloo a little later on today, but the only proper way to lead off this morning is to bid a fond farewell and thank you to Hideki Matsui for seven years of good and loyal balky-kneed service.
Matsui came to the the Yankees from the Yomiuri Giants as a free agent following the 2002 season. While Ichiro experienced unprecedented success in his first two years in the Big Leagues, other Japanese postion players - Tsuyoshi Shinjo and So Taguchi - had not been as successful. Matsui was the first slugger to come out of Japan and no one quite knew what to expect. Bolder predictions forecasted as many as fifty home runs; others weren't quite so optimistic.
Early on at least, the pessimists were right. After an Opening Day grand slam, Matsui had a difficult time adjusting to two seamers and sinking fastballs. He perpetually flailed at pitches on the outer part of the plate, trying to pull everything - a habit he's yet to outgrow. It seemed as if every other at bat saw Matsui rolling over one and grounding weakly to second. Through his first fifty eight games - more than a third of his first Major League season - Matsui was hitting .250/.299/.357 with just 3 HRs. He had grounded in to eight double plays, most of them surely of the 4-6-3 variety as he tried again and again to pull the pitch low and away.
Matsui struck bottom in an early June interleague series in Cincinnati. The Yankees were 33-23, leading Boston by a game and a half, Toronto by two, and Baltimore by four and a half. Despite their record, they were playing listless baseball, foreshadowing the early portions of seasons to come. Prior to the opening game of the season, George Steinbrenner named Derek Jeter as the eleventh captain in Yankee history. Matsui went just 1 for 8 over the next two games, dropping his triple slash line to its lowest mark of the season. But he was about to get right.
In the series finale, dropped to seventh in the order, Matsui went 4 for 5 with three doubles, a home run, two runs scored, and three RBI. He hit .311/.385/.485 with 13 HR over the season's final 105 games, finishing with a respectable .287/.353/.435 line in finishing second to future Yankee legend Angel Berroa in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He wouldn't look back for the remainder of his Yankee career.
After extremely productive seasons in 2004 and 2005, Matsui's body began to betray him in 2006. Off to another solid start, he broke his wrist in May 2006 game as he attempted a diving catch in left field. The injury cost him 111 games and relegated him almost exclusively to DH duty upon his return. In 2007 and 2008 Matsui's knees, abused from years playing on the astroturf of the Tokyo Dome, did him in. He required surgery on his right knee after the '07 season and on his left during the '08 season. Relatively healthy in 2009, he bounced back with his best season in four years, culminating with the World Series MVP.
More than just his significant offensive production in the middle of the line up, Matsui's professionalism will be missed. He was quiet - not all of it due to the language barier - dignified, and well respected by teammates, announcers, media, fans, and opponents alike. Outside of the "core four" he was the most-tenured Yankee. Now he's the newest Angel.
The Yankees easily could have matched the more-than-reasonable $6.5M, one year deal Matsui received from the Angels. But, with Matsui's physical limitations, he wasn't priority number one - or even priority number three this off-season. The club wasn't willing to make a decision on him until other situations resolved, and that thought process didn't change even when Matsui was willing to accept a very team-friendly offer. It's not a pleasant outcome, but it's what the off-season plan dictates. For the second consecutive year it appears the Angels will get themselves a helluva bargain on a former Yankee.
So thanks Hideki. And good luck to you, except of course during the ten or so times the Angels and Yankees meet next year. It's been a fun seven years Godzilla, but now, they say he's got to go.
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