Indians agree to contract with Japanese pitcher Kobayashi

CLEVELAND -- Not to be confused with his hot dog-chomping countryman, this Kobayashi might make late innings easier to stomach for the Cleveland Indians.

Looking to strengthen the back end of their bullpen and add insurance for closer Joe Borowski, the Indians signed Japanese free agent Masahide Kobayashi to a $6.25 million, two-year contract on Tuesday.

The deal includes a $3.25 million club option for 2010 with a $250,000 buyout.

The 33-year-old Kobayashi spent the past nine seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines, currently managed by Bobby Valentine. The right-handed reliever is one of three pitchers in Japanese baseball history with more than 200 saves.

He will join Cleveland's bullpen as a setup man for Borowski, who in his first season with the Indians led the AL with 45 saves -- many of them shaky ones. Cleveland recently exercised Borowski's $4 million option for 2008.

"This is a guy who has extensive closing experience," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said at a news conference to introduce Kobayashi. "I view him in the upper echelon of guys who were available on the market."

Kobayashi is the first Japanese player signed by the Indians. The club has scouted him for several seasons.

Cleveland had one of the top bullpens in the AL this year, but as Shapiro has learned, injuries and ineffectiveness are two factors that can pop up on a team at any time.

"I don't think we'll ever be satisfied with our bullpen," he said. "We'll continue to work to reinforce and today was a big step."

Manager Eric Wedge can give the ball to Kobayashi in the seventh and eighth innings. He'll be a nice complement for right-hander Rafael Betancourt and lefty Rafael Perez, who were two of the league's top setup men last season.

"If we're as good a team as we think we're going to be, there are going to be many opportunities to pitch in meaningful situations in the late innings," Shapiro said. "That's what we envision for him."

Kobayashi has saved at least 20 games in each of the last seven seasons.

The Indians, who took World Series champion Boston to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, are hoping they can follow the success the Red Sox had in signing Japanese pitchers. Starter Daisuke Matsuzaka and reliever Hideki Okajima were instrumental in helping the Red Sox win their second Series title in four years.

Last season, Kobayashi went 2-7 with a 3.61 ERA and 27 saves in 49 appearances. He was on the disabled list in September with a minor neck injury but finished the regular season on the active roster and pitched in the playoffs.

Kobayashi relies mainly on a slider as his out pitch. His fastball has been clocked in the mid-90s and he also throws a splitter.

"No, I don't throw the gyroball," Kobayashi said, referring to Matsuzaka's famed pitch.

Kobayashi went 36-34 with a 2.79 ERA and 227 saves in 303 games for Chiba Lotte. In 2005, he led the Pacific League with 34 saves. He was a member of Japan's Olympic baseball team in 2004.

Some Japanese players have had a difficult time adjusting to the cultural change in the U.S., but Kobayashi anticipates blending into his new surroundings.

"I don't know what's going to happen but I believe I will be OK in getting along with my teammates," he said through a translator.

Kobayashi has already shown he has a sense of humor. During his first news conference, he was asked what he knows about Cleveland.

"Beautiful lake," he said, cracking a smile, "and the city has the Indians."

Shapiro said the Indians, who have had experience in helping international players adjust to the U.S., plan to hire a full-time translator to help Kobayashi throughout the season.

"Baseball is rapidly becoming a multicultural game," said Shapiro, noting the Indians' 40-man roster is dotted with players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Korea. "Our players are going to embrace him and make him feel like part of the team. We will make his transition as smooth as we can."

Because Kobayashi was an unrestricted free agent, Cleveland did not have to pay a posting fee to Chiba Lotte to negotiate with him.