CHICAGO – What were the New York Yankees thinking when they bid $26 million for the rights to Japanese left-hander Kei Igawa? Sure, that’s only about half of what Boston is paying the Seibu Lions for the rights to Daisuke Matsuzaka. But that hardly makes this a good deal.

Matsuzaka is an unusual commodity, clearly the best free-agent pitcher available. On the other hand, a lot of teams think Igawa will wind up being just another guy, and some think American League hitters will make him long for the good old days with the Hanshin Tigers.

For the record, I like Igawa. He uses his fastball-changeup combination to pile up strikeouts and he certainly doesn’t lack confidence. He wears a blue glove and writes a column on his Web site he calls “Iron Nerves.”

Scouts with many teams, including some in the National League, labeled Igawa as a bottom-of-the-rotation starter, possibly even a reliever. Scouts with the Yankees – presumably some of the same people who thought Esteban Loaiza was a good get at the deadline in 2004 and subsequently recommended free-agent splurges on Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright – convinced general manager Brian Cashman that the 27-year-old Japanese veteran was as attractive as Ted Lilly, Vicente Padilla or any of the other second-tier starters on the market.

We’ll see.

The record posting prices for both Matsuzaka and Igawa, and the high cost of guys like Lilly, Padilla, Gil Meche, Miguel Batista and even Adam Eaton (three years, $24 million from Philadelphia), reflect the timeless law of supply and demand.

Even after the Eaton and Igawa moves, and assuming Matsuzaka and Igawa do sign with the Red Sox and Yankees, at least 30 holes remain in big-league rotations.

Ten teams need more than one reasonably reliable starter, with the Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals somehow short three and four, respectively. Teams looking for two include the Cubs, Astros, Cardinals (now foreseeing Adam Wainwright as the closer to start the year), Padres, Giants, Mariners, Blue Jays and Devil Rays.

There are perhaps 10 attractive free-agent starters on the market, and that counts two essentially unavailable to at least 25 teams (Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte). No wonder the White Sox and Rockies wait patiently as the price for starters available in trades, like Freddy Garcia, Javier Vazquez and Jason Jennings, soars.

Dontrelle Willis? Don’t even ask.

A story out of New York last week suggested a possible Willis-to-the-Yankees trade for outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitching prospect Humberto Sanchez. They might be in a Willis deal, but only if they were accompanying Philip Hughes, their best pitching prospect, and another intriguing part of two.

Look for a feeding frenzy over pitching when owners start gathering in Orlando this week at the winter meetings. The top three tiers of healthy free-agent starters run only about 17 to 20 deep – with the likes of Steve Trachsel, Tomo Ohka, Chan Ho Park, Mark Redman and Jason Marquis on the bottom of the pool-so a lot of teams are going to be left out. Teams still standing when the music stops will be forced to look to trades, reclamation projects, minor-league signings (Washington quickly plucked Tim Redding after his 12-10 season at Triple-A Charlotte in the White Sox system) and maybe even the Rule 5 draft of unprotected minor-leaguers to try to fill their needs.

Runs are brewing

The Brewers took a big risk by trading left-hander Doug Davis, their best bet for 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings, but it will be a good one if Claudio Vargas wins 10 or 12 games. Davis can be a free agent after this season and GM Doug Melvin thought he could be tough for Milwaukee to re-sign. So he got catcher Johnny Estrada, a 2004 All-Star, along with Vargas from Arizona.

Estrada can hit, which makes him a significant upgrade over Damian Miller. But the deal could get even better for the Brewers if they trade Miller for pitching because they also have J.D. Closser and Mike Rivera to back up Estrada. Estrada hit .302 with 11 homers and 71 RBIs in 115 games for the Diamondbacks, but didn’t endear himself to manager Bob Melvin.

“I know how to win,” the 30-year-old switch-hitter said. “I’m passionate about winning. Maybe sometimes I voiced that too much, when things were not going well. … I kind of fell out of favor, for whatever reason.”

Estrada’s 2006 performance looks especially impressive considering he was dealing with an ulcer, which went undetected for a long time. He said he was sick many game days, including the July 14 contest against Milwaukee in which he hit a walk-off homer off Derrick Turnbow.

“I (got sick) before that game,” he said. “I was playing sick a lot, with an upset stomach. I played through it.”

Estrada is one of the least patient hitters in the majors, walking only 13 times last year. But his bat will look good in a lineup that already included Prince Fielder, Bill Hall, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy.


Miller, still considered a strong receiver at 37, would be an excellent addition for the White Sox. A.J. Pierzynski started 126 games last season – more than all major-league catchers except Jason Kendall (141), Kenji Johjima (131) and Ramon Hernandez (126) – and seemed to wear down. Rookie Chris Stewart is currently second on the depth chart to Pierzynski.

Miller told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was upset “a little bit” upon hearing about the Estrada trade. He said he still would like to play every day but knows he hit .207 with one homer after the All-Star break, battling a number of ailments.

A resident of La Crosse, Wis., he says he can deal with backing up Estrada. But a trip down Interstate Highway 90/94 wouldn’t be a bad option either.

The Dodgers’ Toby Hall is another intriguing option if Sox GM Ken Williams seeks a significant upgrade to take the burden off Pierzynski. Rod Barajas, who backed out of a deal to be a regular in Toronto, is another option.

Different priorities

Red Sox GM Theo Epstein must have been rubbing his eyes in disbelief at Baltimore’s bullpen signings during the last two weeks.

The Orioles committed about $43 million to build a supporting cast in front of closer Chris Ray, adding Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson. Baez received $19 million over three years, making him the second-highest paid set-up man (behind the Yankees’ Kyle Farnsworth). Walker, who made 56 appearances without getting credit for any of Detroit’s 95 victories last year, signed a three-year deal.

“My personal philosophy is spending a lot of money on middle relief is always something to be avoided if possible,” said Epstein, who patches his bullpen together year to year. “There’s a tremendous amount of volatility in year to year performance of non-closing relievers. So it’s important, if possible, not to fall into the trap of buying high when there’s so much volatility. Along with the Red Sox, Cleveland, Toronto, Kansas City and Washington are going to the winter meetings in serious search of relievers. The Indians, who struck out on Justin Speier, Baez and Walker, want to add at least two, maybe three. Keith Foulke is a strong possibility.

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