Saito, Braves reach one-year deal
Latest signing comes one day after Atlanta adds Wagner
ATLANTA -- Braves general manager Frank Wren still has some offseason needs to fill. But over the course of the past two days, he's completed his bullpen-reconstruction process in a manner that provides manager Bobby Cox plenty of confidence in his newly acquired late-inning weapons.
Just one day after introducing Billy Wagner as their new closer, the Braves once again opened Turner Field on Thursday afternoon to announce that they had signed Takashi Saito to a one-year, $3.2 million contract that provides the opportunity to earn an additional $2.3 million through performance-based incentives.
While having the capability to serve as a closer, Saito will primarily serve as a setup man for Wagner, who agreed to a one-year, $7 million contract on Wednesday.
"It's hard to get two closers and two quality guys at the back of your bullpen for those dollars," Wren said. "We feel very fortunate."
Knowing that they were going to likely lose both Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano via free agency, the Braves set their sights on Wagner and Saito. With assistant general manager Bruce Manno orchestrating aggressive pursuits and Kenshin Kawakami providing an assist, Wren was able to fill these two voids quickly and provide himself the opportunity to place a greater focus on his remaining needs during next week's Winter Meetings.
"We're very fortunate to get two outstanding relief pitchers in the last two days, and we haven't even been to the Winter Meetings yet," Cox said. "We're way ahead of the game."
Saito, who will turn 40 in February, may no longer be the same dominant reliever who successfully converted 63 of 69 save opportunities and limited opponents to a .166 batting average during the 2006 and '07 seasons with the Dodgers. During the 142 2/3 innings completed during this span, he notched 185 strikeouts and issued just 36 walks.
But while posting a 2.43 ERA and allowing opponents a .244 batting average in 56 appearances for the Red Sox this past season, the veteran right-hander provided the Braves enough reason to believe he can still be an effective late-innings reliever. An indication that he may no longer have dominant stuff was apparent via the fact that he registered 52 strikeouts and issued 25 walks in the 55 2/3 innings for Boston. But he still showed some resolve while limiting opponents to a .179 (10-for-56) batting average with runners in scoring position.
"I can remember when Takashi was with the Dodgers and he was lights out," Cox said. "It became an eight-inning game. He was throwing that good over there when Grady Little was the [Dodgers] manager. I know what Grady thought of him -- a lot, very highly. I can't wait for him to get to Spring Training and get the season going. I feel extremely good about the tail end of our nine-inning game."
Saito, who enjoyed a successful career in Japan before joining the Dodgers in 2006, shared Cox's excitement. The veteran right-hander said he's long known of the Braves' winning tradition and gained more information about the team and city of Atlanta through Kawakami, who last year became the first Japanese native to play in the Majors for the Braves.
During his days as a starting pitcher in Japan, Saito remembers matching up against Kawakami on a number of occasions. They have spoken on the phone a few times over the past couple of weeks and crossed paths during a television appearance in Japan last week.
|"We're very fortunate to get two outstanding relief pitchers in the last two days, and we haven't even been to the Winter Meetings yet. We're way ahead of the game."|
|-- Bobby Cox|
When the Mets traded Wagner to the Red Sox in August, he quickly developed a bond with Saito. According to the Japanese hurler, the two shared a number of laughs while sitting in Boston's bullpen.
"When we visited Billy last week in Virginia, he couldn't say enough about Takashi -- his stuff, his makeup, how he throws the ball and what a great teammate he actually is," Cox said. "It helped reinforce what we were thinking about him."
With this right- and left-handed mix his two newest relievers provide, Cox said that he will feel comfortable occasionally utilizing Saito in the closer's role. This could prove important early in the season for Wagner, who returned in August after undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in September 2008.
"It's really important to have at least two guys down at the end that you can trust," Cox said. "With Takashi and Billy, we have all the faith in the world in those guys. With the other guys, we have we feel like we have a solid bullpen. Hopefully, we've actually reduced it to an eight-inning or seven-inning game."
While his responsibility is to help the Braves in their hunt to end their recent absence from the postseason, Saito could also provide dividends in the years to come as Atlanta now seems committed to continue searching the Japanese market.
"It was interesting for us to have a Japanese player who could help recruit for us," Wren said in reference to Kawakami. "This has been a very positive process. I think it has opened up some things for us, because Japanese players will now feel comfortable playing in Atlanta. It has opened up a whole new group of players for us."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.