(UPDATED: 11:40 a.m. with comments from general manager Frank Wren.)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — More than two weeks after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, Kenshin Kawakami – along with a translator and about 10 trailing members of the Japanese media — finally made it into Braves camp Wednesday.
Given Kawakami’s extended absence and the fact he’s coming back to a team that clearly doesn’t want him, he deserves some credit for spinning this one-liner: “It feels like I was in elementary school, I was sick the whole time and then I came back.”
But he shouldn’t be here. That’s less a knock on Kawakami than it is the Braves. They created an unnecessary distraction by bringing the pitcher to their camp after taking him off their 40-man roster in November and spending the entire offseason trying to trade him.
The belief is that Braves general manager Frank Wren was hoping Kawakami would either sign back with a Japanese team (which didn’t interest the pitcher) or he could entice another team into picking up a significant chunk (maybe half) of the remaining $6.67 million on his contract. Neither has occurred. That means Wren now has to wait for Kawakami to get in shape, pitch some games and impress other teams, assuming other teams have a need created by injuries or other pitchers fizzling.
In the meantime, the Braves have a relatively high-profile player in camp who logically will not be on the team this season. Is this really worth it?
When asked about the situation, Kawakami, always pleasant and polite, responded through a translator: “There’s not much I can do about that. It’s about this year. Honestly, I did have some doubts [I would be back].”
Does he feel it’s only a matter of time before he’s traded?
“With other teams, that’s not even in my mind right now. Since I’m here with the team I have to try to prove myself. … It [the future] is something I am a little worried about. But I just need to pitch my best.”
Wren said he’s not concerned about any distraction issues because Kawakami doesn’t draw attention to himself. He likened the situation to last year, when the team attempted to trade Derek Lowe. “If there’s any disruption, it’s between K.K. and the club, not K.K. and his teammates, just like there was no problem between Derek Lowe and his teammates last year [after the team attempted to deal Lowe.”
As for Kawakami’s future, he acknowledged that the Braves have pitching depth and, “It may mean we trade him, but we haven’t found the right match yet.”
Kawakami signed a three-year, $23 million contract in 2009. He has a record of 8-22 and a 4.32 ERA to show for it. He lost his first nine decisions last season before beating the Detroit Tigers (one earned run in seven innings) but was sent to the bullpen, then to Gwinnett. Nobody expected he would be back with the Braves this season.
Kawakami admitted family members, most notably his mother, tried to talk him out of coming back. But he said his friends told him to return “and prove what you’re able to be.”
When asked if he felt this was an “unfair” situation, he responded: “I just didn’t have it last year. I don’t think it’s unfair at all. I feel it’s a new year and I don’t want to look back at last year. Just in general I wasn’t able to give quality starts and quality pitching for my team.”
When Kawakami walked into the dugout, he was given an ovation from his teammates. When someone yelled speech, he responded, “No speech.” In the clubhouse, he was greeted by Lowe, who later joked: “We had to send Brett Favre to go get him.”
Kawakami isn’t on the Favre level of distractions. But it could’ve been avoided.
By Jeff Schultz
Last few posts from Braves’ camp