Officially, baseball's free-agent auction doesn't start for another couple of weeks when players become eligible to sign with teams other than their own.
But the bidding is beginning sooner for at least one particular free agent. As of Thursday, teams could start flexing their financial muscle in pursuit of Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In a winter in which pitching is likely to be in even shorter supply than usual -- the conventional free-agent class features Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt, but few other quality starters -- Matsuzaka is generating a groundswell of interest from halfway around the globe.
Ineligible for total free agency until the end of April 2008, the 26-year-old right-hander was made available -- or "posted" -- by the Seibu Lions, who began the process at their discretion on Thursday.
By 5 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Nov. 8, interested teams must submit blind bids to the commissioner's office, which will forward the winning bid to the Lions, who then have until Nov. 14 to accept it. The highest-bidding team will then have 30 days to reach an agreement with Matsuzaka and his agent, Scott Boras.
The Lions will only receive payment if Matsuzaka is signed to a major-league contract. If not, Matsuzaka will return to Seibu for at least one more season. But he would need to be posted again next year since he's not officially a free agent until 20 days into the 2008 season.
It's expected that as many as 10 teams may make bids on Matsuzaka. The New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles are considered certain bidders, and no would be surprised if the San Diego Padres got into the running. The Seattle Mariners said Wednesday they would not bid on Matsuzaka.
Additionally, several baseball executives expect the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers to take part in the process, if for no other reason than both teams have done extensive business with Boras in recent seasons.
The price tag, of course, is open to much speculation. Six years ago, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki was posted and earned the Orix Blue Wave a dowry worth slightly more than $13 million. By most estimates, the top post for Matsuzaka will more than double that amount. Some project the winning post could top $30 million.
With the entire process shrouded in secrecy -- some teams adamantly refuse to confirm their interest, reasoning that any disclosure could affect the bidding – the pursuit of Matsuzaka seems to be like something out of a spy novel. Not since Cuban emigre Jose Contreras put himself up for auction in Nicaragua in 2001 has there been such interest in an international free agent.
(Helping Matsuzaka's appeal: The bidding post won't count toward the luxury tax threshold, and the winning team won't have to surrender draft picks as compensation.)
Beyond the posting process, the winning team must then satisfy Boras' contractual demands, which are expected to be significant. Boras has stated that he views Matsuzaka as a No. 1 starter and expects a salary commensurate with that stature. Translation: a minimum of $10 million annually.
It would surprise few if the total price tag for Matsuzaka -- including the winning post and a multiyear contract -- reached $75 million.
"This,'' sighed one general manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "is going to get ugly.''
So Matsuzaka will be expensive. Is he worth the investment?
Bobby Valentine, who managed 15 years in the majors and has managed in Japan the last four seasons, has little doubt.
Valentine told The New York Times this month that Matsuzaka "is the real deal. He has the ability to be one of the top starters in MLB.''
"He's got very good stuff, no question,'' added a major league talent evaluator. "He's definitely legit.''
The MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic last March, Matsuzaka has command of as many as five pitches. His fastball is routinely clocked in the low 90s, and he features a devastating changeup, an effective split-fingered fastball and a slider hybrid that has come to be known as the Gyroball.
If there are doubts about Matsuzaka, they revolve around his rather slight frame and his past workload. Matsuzaka has been a pitching sensation since high school and has thrown an extraordinary number of pitches at the highest level of international play (two Olympiads and the WBC) as well as regular- and post-season competition.
"I think the guy's good,'' ventured one major league general manager who feels priced out of the market. "But it may end up being that the chase isn't worth it. He may be [Hideki] Irabu all over again. You never know."
There will be cultural adjustments for sure, which is why some who handicap the race see the Yankees as distinct favorites, especially now that the Mariners are out of the picture. The former have Hideki Matsui and the necessary infrastructure to ease the transition.
But beyond lifestyle issues, Matsuzaka will be facing far more powerful lineups than he's accustomed to seeing in his native land, particularly if he signs with an American League club.
"Japanese baseball is different,'' cautions a veteran National League scout. "It's comparable to how the game used to be played in the National League -- they move runners, slap the ball around and focus on fundamentals.''
Matsuzaka's availability may also affect the market for other free-agent starters, including Zito, also represented by Boras. It's difficult to imagine any team securing Matsuzaka, then taking part in the chase for Zito or Schmidt -- unless it's one of the New York teams.
For the other teams forced to choose, Matsuzaka may represent a bigger gamble.
"I would think that guys like Zito and Schmidt have more value,'' said one AL GM, "they're more of a known commodity. You already know what those guys can do here. That should have an effect.''
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.