The Dodgers and Angels are among the teams that plan to pursue free-agent shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who Monday announced he is leaving Japan for the major leagues.
"A number of our scouts have seen him play, and I've also seen him play," Dodger General Manager Dan Evans said. "We're very aware of his abilities."
Both clubs have closely monitored the speedy, 28-year-old switch-hitter in anticipation of Monday's announcement, dispatching scouts to Japan to watch Matsui play for the Seibu Lions.
Known as "Little Matsui," he is listed at 5 feet 9 and is not related to New York Yankee outfielder Hideki Matsui, who left Japan after the 2002 season and was the runner-up for the American League rookie-of-the-year award announced last week.
Kazuo Matsui, a seven-time All-Star in Japan, hopes to quickly establish himself in the majors as Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki did, and many baseball officials believe he will.
The Dodgers are eager to acquire Matsui because they had the worst offense in the majors last season, and he batted .305 with 33 home runs, 84 runs batted in and 179 hits for the Lions. For the Angels, Matsui would represent an upgrade on offense and defense over incumbent David Eckstein, at a price presumably more affordable than free-agent shortstop Miguel Tejada.
Officials said the Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners and the Yankees also are expected to pursue Matsui, elevating him among the top-tier free agents in this class before he has played an inning in the majors.
"With Matsui, as with any other Japanese player, we will evaluate the situation and determine what's best for our club," Evans said. "He's among many players that we're looking at and considering."
Two team sources said the Dodgers plan to be aggressive in trying to sign Matsui, considered a key component in Evans' off-season plan to bolster a batting order that produced 17 fewer runs than the lowly Detroit Tigers.
Evans hopes to acquire a first baseman through a trade, and the Dodgers are targeting Richie Sexson of Milwaukee and Derrek Lee of Florida, among others, offering starter Odalis Perez as the centerpiece of their package.
Evans would prefer to sign Matsui, Dodger sources said, rather than another big-name free agent, because the club would not have to give draft picks as compensation to Matsui's former team, as it would to the team of a free agent who played in the majors last season.
Moreover, Matsui is not expected to command one of the bigger contracts in the market. Evans has cleared about $22 million from last season's $115-million payroll, but some of that money is earmarked for other needs, such as arbitration, and it is not known whether Boston real estate developer Frank McCourt will maintain the current payroll if he completes his proposed purchase of the club.
The Dodgers' strong reputation in Japanese baseball circles, which began under the reign of the O'Malley family, might give the club an edge in its recruiting efforts. Former Japanese league star pitchers Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii are under contract with the Dodgers for 2004.
Signing Matsui, the 1998 Pacific League most valuable player, might be part of a bigger plan for the Angels.
At a time owner Arte Moreno has hired one of his longtime advertising industry colleagues as club president and directed him to sell the Angels outside Orange County, the acquisition of Matsui would enable the team to pursue marketing and sponsorship deals with Japanese firms.
The Mariners, with star outfielder Suzuki and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, have several such deals in place.
A three-time Gold Glove award winner in Japan, Matsui reportedly wants to stay at shortstop and play on the West Coast.
Dodger shortstop Cesar Izturis is considered among the best fielders at his position in the National League, but the club would consider moving Izturis to second base, where he played with Toronto, if it made a difference in signing Matsui. If the Angels signed Matsui -- or Tejada -- they could solicit offers for Eckstein and second baseman Adam Kennedy, trading one and playing the other at second base.
If Matsui signs before the Dec. 20 deadline to offer contracts and no trade is made, the Angels would decide whether they would be better served keeping Eckstein as a utility infielder, at a salary in the range of $1.5 million to $2 million, or not tendering him a contract and signing a utility player for less.
Chone Figgins diminished his chances of becoming the Angel center fielder next season when he chose not to report for winter ball.
Figgins, a converted infielder, started 40 games in center field last season and played impressively in place of the injured Darin Erstad. Hoping to get him more experience at the position, the Angels secured a roster spot for him in the Puerto Rican winter league, but he declined to go.
Figgins, 25, a switch-hitting offensive spark plug, hit .296 in his rookie season, including .412 with men in scoring position. He stole 13 bases.
General Manager Bill Stoneman also said that outfielder Jeff DaVanon missed the cutoff for arbitration eligibility, which means the Angels figure to pay him slightly above the minimum $300,000 instead of facing a potential hearing that could have doubled that salary.
Staff writer Ross Newhan contributed to this report.