Hiroki Kuroda: the mystery man

Eric Christian Smith

Hiroki Kuroda may be the second most important domino in the Yankees' offseason. But when and where he falls is anyone's guess.

The Yankees have two definitive starters for 2014: CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. For a team whose downfall in the prior season can mostly be laid at the feet of their anemic offense, there sure are a lot of questions about their starting pitching. David Phelps and Michael Pineda are both question marks due to health and Phil Hughes is a long shot to be retained by the club. Most importantly the best pitcher on the staff in 2013, Hiroki Kuroda, is also a free agent. He's also the type that might retire on a whim and head back to his native Japan. So what are the Yankees to do?

First and foremost, is the question of whether the Yankees should resign him or not. Kuroda was one of the top pitchers in all of baseball for about four months of the 2013 season. But in August and September, he pitched to an ERA of over five. Was it fatigue? Was it just a regression to the mean? It's hard to say, but the odds are that the Yankees will not get a discount thanks to Kuroda's precipitous decline. They're going to have to pay him like one of the very best pitchers in the league.

Then there's the issue of whether or not Kuroda even wants to return to the team at all. While he seems to have enjoyed his time in New York, he could very easily pull a Mike Mussina and decide to hang up his cleats at a moment's notice. Or, he could be pursued by another team and convinced to sign with them for the upcoming season. His original team, the Dodgers, seem like a good possibility to look into paying for Kuroda's services. Any contender with some money to spare would be wise to take a look at the talented righty.

Kuroda's status will impact the Yankees in 2014 almost as much as Robinson Cano's. He's the best MLB pitcher available via free agency and would not be easily replaced. As much as scouts rave about Masahiro Tanaka, he's still a untested commodity. And it's unknown if resigning Kuroda would even be concern to the Japanese star. Any speculation that resigning Kuroda could be an encouragement to Tanaka's desire to play in New York is pure supposition. It might help, it might not.

Projecting the pitching staff that the Yankees have at their disposal in 2014 will be impossible until we find out what Kuroda is going to do. And even then, we can't be sure of the quality of pitcher he is until April. The mystery man will help shape the entire strategy of the Yankees' front office for the upcoming year. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that it would benefit the Yankees greatly if Kuroda makes his decision very quickly. The Yankees have too many holes to fill to wait around on one man, even if that man as the best pitcher they had in 2013.

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