Hiroki Kuroda said he is aware of how much is expected of him and the right-hander from Japan didn’t have to see the room full of cameras waiting for him at Dodger Stadium or hear the glowing scouting report offered by General Manager Ned Colletti at his introductory news conference Sunday to come to that realization.
Kuroda, 32, will be paid $35.3 million over the next three years by the Dodgers, monetary compensation that he said would be “unthinkable” in Japan. Kuroda, who earned less than $3 million last season pitching for the Hiroshima Carp, admitted that his new contract is a source of pressure.
“That exists,” he said. “But once I decided to come here, it was something I was prepared to deal with.”
Though Kuroda himself was quick to point out that he hasn’t thrown a single pitch in the big leagues, he was offered longer and more lucrative deals. The Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks and Kansas City Royals were willing to sign him for four years.
“I’ve never had a contract that long,” Kuroda said. “I’d rather have something short, where I have to prove myself over and over. I think I’ll perform better with a shorter contract.”
He said he thought climate would also affect how he pitched, which was a reason why he chose to play in Los Angeles. Dodgers closer Takashi Saito, who moved to the majors from Japan two years ago, has credited the region’s warm weather for loosening his muscles and keeping him healthy.
Because Kuroda’s wife and two daughters will move with him to Los Angeles in late January, he said the city’s large Japanese population was a consideration. But he said that he plans to enroll his older daughter, 5-year-old Hinatsu, in a regular American elementary school. She attends a kindergarten at which English is spoken.
Kuroda said he would study English in the coming months. He received a call from catcher Russell Martin while posing for pictures on the Dodger Stadium mound, but couldn’t speak to him without a translator.
Kuroda said he has also started preparing for on-field changes by playing catch using an American baseball, which is slicker and has higher seams than the one used in Japan. He said he has an American ball sitting around his home in Hiroshima that he tries to grip as often as he can.
Paul Fryer, a national cross-checker for the Dodgers who scouted Kuroda in July, said he thought Kuroda should not have a problem adjusting to the majors.
“He’s intelligent enough,” Fryer said.
Fryer said Kuroda probably won’t be on the mound as long as he was in Japan, where he threw seven complete games last season, because he’ll have to expend more energy to get through more potent big league lineups.
Logan White, a Dodgers assistant general manager who watched Kuroda pitch twice last season, gave high marks to Kuroda’s athleticism and mental makeup.
“He has a loose, easy delivery, good arm action,” White said. “He throws from a three-quarters angle. He’s going to run his fastball from 89 to 95 [mph], sit in that 93 range with good running movement into a right-handed hitter. He’s also got a slider, a cut fastball that he runs about 89-90 and it’s late, sharp and crisp. He has a forkball and it’s hard and late-diving.”
Colletti said Kuroda, who was 12-8 with a 3.56 earned-run average with the Carp last season, would probably be in the middle of the Dodgers’ rotation, anywhere from second to fourth.
Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said he was pleased with the signing and praised Colletti for addressing the team’s top off-season priorities without trading any of the team’s young talent.
The Dodgers also signed Andruw Jones, who gives them a defensive upgrade in center field and a middle-of-the-order bat, albeit one with a .222 average last season. Jones’ deal was for two seasons and is worth $36.2 million.
“I think this has been a very, very successful off-season,” McCourt said, also counting the signing of Manager Joe Torre.
Colletti said the addition of Kuroda made him “less inclined” to trade multiple players for a starting pitcher and would allow him to focus on acquiring a reliever. The Dodgers are also looking for a backup catcher.
McCourt said that he wouldn’t necessarily avoid signing a player who was named in former Sen. George Mitchell’s report on performance-enhancing drugs.
“I think it depends on the individual and how the individual has dealt with the situation,” McCourt said. “I’d be more inclined to sign a player that may have been in the report but has explained his conduct and who we’re convinced isn’t doing anything right now than somebody who there’s a great deal of suspicion about but whose name wasn’t in the report.”
McCourt said he was in favor of the recommendations made by Mitchell to improve drug testing and called for the union’s cooperation in implementing them.