We've spent a lot of time these past few months discussing international pitchers who might fit the Yankees' needs. Masahiro Tanaka's the apple of everyone's eye. Suk-Min Yoon could work. But one of the top overseas arms worth considering isn't foreign at all. After dominating Japan's Central League for the past three seasons, Randy Messenger may be ready for another shot at the majors.
The now 32-year-old righty's first run in the U.S. wasn't exactly successful. The 6'6, 260 lb. behemoth pitched 184.2 innings, all out of the bullpen, spread out over five seasons between 2005 and 2009 with the Marlins, Giants and Mariners. Messenger posted a 4.87 ERA and a 4.68 FIP to go with a dismal 1.65 WHIP and 5.85 K-rate.
In 2010, Messenger landed with the Hanshin Tigers and things began to change. As he transitioned from reliever to starter, he added a split-fingered fastball and improved on a slider that was below league-average in the states. Since 2011 he has emerged as one of Japan's best pitchers. With Hanshin, Messenger's had three straight seasons of sub-3.00 ERAs and sub-1.20 WHIPs. This past year, he led the Central League with 196.1 innings pitched and 183 strikeouts. His 2.89 ERA and 3.27 K:BB rate were fifth among starters and his 8.40 K-rate was fourth.
According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, Messenger has a three-year offer to remain with Hanshin worth up to $15 million on the table. He's set a deadline of November 15 to accept bids from MLB clubs and Passan believes he's looking for two years in the $8 to $10 million range. That's a lot to commit to someone who was nothing more than a fringe major leaguer in his twenties, but if Messenger's truly evolved as a pitcher, he could provide back-end rotation quality for a mere fraction of what guys like Scott Feldman and Jason Vargas would cost to fill a similar role.
Colby Lewis comes to mind as a pitcher whose career took an encouragingly similar path to what Messenger's done. After struggling to stick in the majors with the Rangers and A's, the righty spent two ace-like years with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 he returned to Texas and accumulated 9.6 fWAR over the next two and a half seasons while helping the Rangers win two American League titles. He's earned considerably less than what Messenger is looking for, but if the latter can mimic the former's production he'll be well worth his current demands.
Teams evaluating Messenger's chances to be a better-than-average major league pitcher in round two need to decide whether his prowess in Japan is the result of improved stuff or of facing weaker competition. Chances are the answer involves a little bit from column "A" and a little from column "B". It's unrealistic to presume that Messenger can reproduce his Central League numbers in the U.S., but even a fairly significant drop-off would leave him with decent positive value.
Messenger could pique the interest of the Yankees who need to sign at least two starting pitchers this offseason on a possibly limited budget. In Japan, he's shown an innate ability to not give up home runs, allowing 0.6 or less per nine innings in each of the last three seasons. That skill should appeal in particular to the Yankees. It would be a reach to view him as any kind of potential replacement for Hiroki Kuroda or Andy Pettitte, but as a four or five, competing for starts with Michael Pineda and David Phelps - and Ivan Nova if the 2012 version returns - he's definitely worth a look. He'd be an option in middle relief too, for a bullpen that presently lacks much experience.