Astros officially sign Matsui
Veteran inks three-year contract worth $16.5 million
HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros were the first team to make a move during the week of the Winter Meetings, and they did so before they even arrived to the annual gathering of baseball executives in Nashville, Tenn.
General manager Ed Wade will arrive at the Opryland Hotel on Monday to partake in the Winter Meetings, but on Sunday, he announced that the club had finalized its agreement with second baseman Kazuo Matsui, who signed a three-year contract worth $16.5 million. The announcement was made shortly after Matsui underwent and passed a physical in Houston.
Matsui, 32, takes over a position occupied by only two players in the last 17 years: Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent. A job that appeared to be Chris Burke's to lose now goes to Matsui, who played a major role in the Colorado Rockies' World Series run in 2007.
"We just felt with the addition of [outfielder Michael] Bourn at top of the order, if we could come up with a solid run producing second baseman, that would enhance our club," Wade said. "It gives us two people at the top of the order who can run. Kaz's defensive ability is outstanding, and being as solid defensively up the middle as we can is important."
Matsui, a native of Osaka, Japan, hit .288 with four home runs and 37 RBIs for Colorado in 2007. He also hit 24 doubles and six triples while stealing a career-best 32 bases and scoring a career-high 84 runs for the Rockies last season.
Additionally, Matsui was one of only six switch-hitters in 2007 (Chone Figgins, Jose Reyes, Brian Roberts, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino) to record at least 30 extra-base hits and 30 stolen bases.
The Astros weren't the only team to pursue Matsui. The Cubs were also interested, but Wade's aggressiveness may have swayed the free agent second baseman toward Houston. Wade and manager Cecil Cooper flew to Los Angeles to meet face-to-face with Matsui and his wife, Mio, as well as Toru Mihara, the president of the company who works with Matsui's agent, Arn Tellem.
"It was a good session at that point," Wade said. "It was great to have Coop involved."
"After I became a free agent, the Astros strongly pursued me and I felt needed by the Houston Astros," Matsui said through Mihara, who translated for the second baseman during a conference call with reporters. "Talking to [Wade and Cooper], they told me good things about the organization, the fans and the Houston media."
Interestingly, former Astros center fielder Willy Taveras also played a role. The two were teammates for the National League champion Rockies, and Taveras assured Matsui that Houston would be a good fit for him.
"Willy talked to Kaz about Houston and was encouraging him to look into that situation," Wade said. "Cecil talking to him directly really helped us along, too."
Mihara will not serve as Matsui's interpreter during the season. The Astros will hire a full-time interpreter to travel with the team, and they will also hire a personal trainer/massage therapist to work exclusively with Matsui, who has a history of back problems.
Matsui's signing puts Burke, a former No. 1 Draft pick who was presumed to be the heir apparent to Biggio, in limbo. It's likely the Astros will attempt to trade Burke, who could fetch pitching if packaged with outfielder Luke Scott, who was pushed out of the starting outfield equation when the team acquired Bourn and moved Hunter Pence to right field.
"Chris obviously is part of our club," Wade said. "We had viewed him as the heir apparent when Biggio retired, but if we could do something to upgrade at second base, we were going to try to do that. There were only a couple guys who could fill that.
"We'll have to see what Chris' role is going forward. If there's a trade there, we'll try to do that as well."
Wade had not spoken directly to Burke, but he said he told Burke's agent, Barry Meister, "If an opportunity would present itself to get Chris to another club, we would try to do that."
Matsui was originally signed by the New York Mets as a free agent on Dec. 17, 2003, and was acquired by Colorado from the Mets on June 9, 2006. He played nine seasons for the Seibu Lions of the Japanese League from 1995-2003. During that time span, he hit .309 with 150 home runs, 569 RBIs and 306 stolen bases for Seibu.
He earned the Pacific League's Most Valuable Player honor in 1998, and in 2002, he became only the eighth Japanese player since 1950 to hit .300 or higher with at least 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases.
Wade plans to continue to be aggressive this week in Nashville. The Astros will be seeking pitching, both starters and relievers. They are looking for a closer to take over the role vacated by Brad Lidge, who was traded to the Phillies on Nov. 7.
"We've had preliminary conversations that could lead to deals," Wade said. "We'll try to be aggressive down there. I don't know what the chances are in making other deals. We've tried to lay the groundwork, but until we get down there and see if anything develops remains to be seen. We've got a surplus at some positions and if we can put some deals together using that, we'll try."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.