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Tuesday, January 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Larry Stone
In a stunning development that could free up nearly $10 million for the Mariners, but in the short term promises to bring complex procedural maneuvering, M's closer Kazu Sasaki has decided to forgo the rest of his contract and remain in Japan.
"He's not going to pitch in the U.S. again," said his San Diego-based agent, Tony Attanasio. "There's nothing wrong with him physically or mentally. What's wrong with him is what's right. He's walking away from $9.5 million for all the right reasons his two children."
Sasaki, who held a news conference late last night in Japan, told Nikkan Sports, "I want to play for a Japanese baseball team because I want to stay with my family." He and his wife, Kaori, have two children, Reina and Shogo.
Initial reports out of Japan are that Sasaki wants to return to his old team, the Yokohama Bay Stars, who need a closer. He was linked earlier this winter to the Yomiuri Giants.
In another development yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the Mariners had signed arbitration-eligible pitcher Joel Pineiro to a three-year, $14.5 million contract. A club spokesman last night disputed that report, however, saying the deal was not completed.
Despite signing former Twins' closer Eddie Guardado in the offseason now the heir apparent to Sasaki's job the Mariners had recent assurances from Sasaki's camp that he planned to show up at spring training next month in the best shape of his career.
The first indication otherwise came in recent days, according to sources, when Sasaki's Japanese agent, Hiro Yamashita, approached the Mariners' owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, to broach the possibility of staying in Japan rather than pitching in Seattle this season.
"Mr. Yamauchi understands," Attanasio said. "Culturally, he understands probably better than we do."
Yamauchi's people reportedly told Yamashita they'd have to deal with Seattle club officials. Yesterday, they were still sorting through the ramifications of the unexpected news.
But the logistics of terminating Sasaki's contract could be problematical and might be drawn out long enough to prevent the team from investing the savings in the dwindling group of unsigned free agents. It would, however, give the M's flexibility to make a spring-training or midseason trade.
The Mariners' official stance yesterday was that they would "accommodate (Sasaki) to the greatest extent we can," according to general manager Bill Bavasi.
But Bavasi added, "As of right now, Kaz is part of our club, part of our roster. ... We have obligations to him, and he has obligations to us. As of today, he'll report to camp with the pitchers and catchers."
Practically speaking, however, Sasaki's four-year career in Seattle is over. Attanasio said the Mariners are cooperating with Sasaki's attempts to extricate himself from his contract. With the likelihood that the Players Association and commissioner's office will get involved, it figures to get complicated.
"This could take a while," said a baseball official.
Attanasio said the preferred scenario for Sasaki's exit would be for the Mariners to place him on waivers, with the understanding that he would reject any waiver claims that other teams might make. But that would subject him to possible termination pay, which figures to be the main bone of contention.
Reportedly, the union may claim that the Mariners must give Sasaki termination pay if he is released from his contract, but the ballclub would be strongly opposed to that.
The union may cite the case of Alex Rodriguez, who was denied permission to restructure his contract while the Rangers were negotiating a trade with the Red Sox. But the Mariners would surely claim that this is an entirely different case, because Sasaki is voluntarily renouncing his contract.
"The club is really cooperating with Kaz and me, to the nth degree," Attanasio said.
Sasaki came to the Mariners in 2000 and made an immediate impact at what had been a perennially troublesome position. He set a club record with 37 saves, which he surpassed the following year, saving 45 games as the Mariners won a record 116 games.
But the final two years of his Mariners career were marked by unease. In May of 2002, he left the team to go to Japan for undisclosed personal reasons. According to sources, he met with Yamauchi while in Japan, and days after his return, the club announced a two-year, $17-million contract extension.
That apparent end-run of team policy against midseason contract negotiations created tension with some in the organization. Last year was a difficult one for him, as he spent two stints on the disabled list, one for a strained lower back, the other for fractured ribs that the pitcher said were broken when he slipped while carrying his suitcase up a flight of stairs. That explanation was met with some skepticism in the clubhouse.
By all accounts, Sasaki was working hard this offseason to improve upon last year, in which he relinquished the closing chores to Shigetoshi Hasegawa and had a 4.05 earned-run-average with 10 saves in 35 appearances.
But Attanasio said the family was unwilling to take Sasaki's children out of Japanese schools and transfer them to Seattle-area schools, as they had done in his first two years with the Mariners.
"Last year they didn't, and it was an overbearingly difficult year mentally (for Sasaki)," the agent said. "It played on his mind heavily."
Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price said last night that Guardado, who saved 41 games for the Twins last year, would be a strong potential replacement for Sasaki.
"It's our good fortune to have an accomplished, All-Star closer, or we'd really be in the lurch," Price said. "Obviously, that signing of Guardado is really underlined now."
Price praised Sasaki, saying that "if he is truly moving on, he left a very positive legacy in Seattle. You can't have the success we've had over the last four years without a quality closer."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
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