If it wasn’t already obvious that Kenshin Kawakami’s days with the Braves were numbered, the point was made clearer when the pitcher was outrighted to Double-A Mississippi after clearing waivers Friday.
Kawakami is still owed $6.67 million for 2011 in the final season of a three-year, $23 million contract, and the Braves have sought a team – possibly a Japanese team – to take him and pay at least a portion of his salary, so they won’t have to eat it all.
“We’ve had a number of discussions over the last couple of weeks,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said on Friday. “I’ll leave it at that.”
The 35-year-old Japanese veteran is 8-22 with a 4.32 ERA over two seasons with the Braves in 50 games, including 41 starts.
Why make the waiver move now? Because the Braves wanted to open a roster spot before a Nov. 19 deadline to add to their 40-man roster any players who need to be protected from next month’s Rule 5 draft.
“It opens up a roster spot,” Wren said Saturday. “It doesn’t change anything else.”
Kawakami slipped to 1-10 with a 5.15 ERA in 2010, after going 7-12 with a 3.86 ERA in ‘09. He lost his starting rotation spot last summer and spent time at Triple-A Gwinnett late in the season.
Two winters ago, the Braves outbid Boston and a few other teams for the services of Kawakami after he decided to leave an accomplished career in Japan and come to the United States as a free agent.
But clearly, the contract has not worked out well for the Braves. They might end up sending him back to any Japanese team that will agree to pay a portion of the salary still owed in his guaranteed contract.
The Braves have six other starters ahead of him: Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and rookies Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy. Minor and Beachy would compete for the fifth spot in the rotation, as things currently stand.
Kawakami’s run support ranked among the majors’ lowest over two seasons, one reason why his record in 2009 was not reflective of his overall solid performance that season.
He had some notable starts that season. In one, Kawakami outpitched then-Toronto ace Roy Halladay, allowing three hits in eight scoreless innings of a Braves win.
But his overall performance declined sharply in 2010, and Kawakami wasn’t a factor down the stretch after being dropped from the rotation. He was left off the postseason roster.
A few days days after the Braves’ division-series loss to San Francisco, Wren made it clear that he intended to move Kawakami during the offseason.
“I think we owe it to him, and to us, to explore what possibilities there are out there,” Wren said on Oct. 14. “Because with the development of our young pitchers, it’s become more difficult for us to project him in the rotation, and that’s really the best role for him.”
Trades aren’t permitted between Major League and Japanese teams, but deals can be worked out to reimburse some remaining salary on an existing deal.
The Yomiuri Giants – better known as Tokyo Giants — and Nippon Ham Fighters reportedly expressed interest in Kawakami, and the Hanshin Tigers have also been mentioned as a possible suitor.