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January 29, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Tuesday, January 29

by Daniel Rathman

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We’ve reached the part of the offseason when Hideki Okajima considering a return to the majors is among the top rumors. To spice things up, listen to the entrance song that he used during his time with the Red Sox while you read the opening segment of today’s Roundup.

Okajima could return to the States as a member of the A’s
According to Susan Slusser, who covers the Athletics for The San Francisco Chronicle, that tune might soon be coming to O.co Coliseum. The 37-year-old Okajima returned to Japan for the 2012 season, after a shoulder ailment nixed his minor-league deal with the Yankees, and he revived his stock by posting a 0.94 ERA over 56 outings for the Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks.

One source of optimism regarding Okajima is his improved control. The lefty issued only six walks in 47 2/3 innings of work for Fukuoka, a figure that stands in stark contrast to the 9.4 percent walk rate that he logged in his last extended major-league stint, which came with the Red Sox in 2010. Throwing darts in Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League is much easier than doing so in the majors, but it appears that Okajima’s performance was impressive enough to attract some attention back in the States.

If Okajima does land with the A’s, though, he is likely to command only a minor-league contract, and his path to the big-league bullpen would be far from clear. Manager Bob Melvin already has at least three southpaw mouths to feed—primary set-up man Sean Doolittle, and middle relievers Jerry Blevins and Jordan Norberto—and three others, Travis Blackley, Pedro Figueroa, and Andrew Werner are “on the outside looking in.” Okajima’s only obvious route to a roster spot would entail outdueling Norberto in spring training, and hoping that the other bubble players do not follow suit.

On the other hand, general manager Billy Beane might have an ulterior motive for signing Okajima—namely, to help his new, “extremely sexy and cool” shortstop, Hiroyuki Nakajima, to get acclimated in his new home. That element, in tandem with Okajima’s possible renaissance, may be his ticket back to the majors. And, the long roster odds notwithstanding, Okajima has previously shown the lockdown LOOGY ability that could set him apart in a competition at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Okajima held opposing lefties to a sub-.200 TAv in each of the two seasons preceding his 2010 collapse (.192 in 2008, .176 in 2009), due in large part to his deceptive mechanics, which enabled him to draw whiffs on 9.82 percent of the fastballs that he threw to fellow lefties in 2009, even though the pitch seldom cracked 89 mph. Most of those whiffs came on fastballs just off the outside corner; when Okajima missed his spot and threw the pitch over the plate, he paid the price.

If the vintage Okajima—with solid fastball command and the splitter to capitalize on it—is back, then, if signed, he could have a fair shot of unseating Norberto. Otherwise, “Okajima, Okey Dokey” may never be heard in a ballpark on this side of the Pacific again.

Scott Atchison nearing decision on minor-league hitch
Speaking of erstwhile Red Sox relievers looking for work, Atchison is having an easier time fielding offers, and he told MLB.com that an agreement could come as soon as this week. The veteran righty will likely be joining his fourth major-league organization, per the MLB.com report, a wise decision given Boston’s revamped, and crowded, bullpen picture.

Whichever team manages to grab Atchison without guaranteeing him a paycheck could find itself a nice bargain. The 36-year-old suffered a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow last July, but he returned in late September looking as good as new. When healthy, Atchison has demonstrated the ability to fill up the strike zone—among relievers who amassed at least 50 innings last year, only two, Wilton Lopez and Luis Ayala, walked a lower percentage of the batters that they faced (4.5 percent for Atchison)—and to retire both left- and right-handed batters.

GMs shopping for low-cost, middle-relief help could do much worse than to give Atchison’s agent a call. He is expected, unsurprisingly, to choose the organization that offers him the best chance of breaking camp with the big-league club.

Padres have discussed extension for Chase Headley
There weren’t many surprises when players and teams exchanged arbitration figures last week, but one that stood out was the gap between the Padres’ proposal and Headley’s request. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported on Friday afternoon that while San Diego filed at $7.075 million—a $3.6 million raise over the 28-year-old’s salary in his second year of arbitration eligibility—its third baseman’s representatives at Hendricks Sports Management shot significantly higher, asking for $10.3 million. The $3.225 million gap was the largest in the 36-case lot, and fell just $250,000 shy of Headley’s earnings from last year.

According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, that disparity could not only stir trouble in a hearing next month, but also derail the team’s hopes of extending its most productive position player. Despite coming in at -7.3 FRAA defensively, Headley contributed 5.3 WARP to the Padres’ cause in 2012, slugging 31 home runs and drawing 88 walks in his 699 plate appearances. In the process, he became the only Padre besides Adrian Gonzalez to cross the 30-homer plateau since Petco Park opened in 2004.

Headley, a former Super Two qualifier who has two more years of team control remaining, could be reluctant to sign a multi-year hitch with the Padres, since he would be 30 years old during his first scheduled tour of free agency as it is. And that means that general manager Josh Byrnes will soon face a tricky challenge, with his prospect-rich team’s window of competition inching closer, just as its best major leaguer prepares to depart.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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