When the Yankees attend the winter meetings next week in Orlando, Fla., there will be an intriguing first baseman for them to meet at the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel.
His name is Julio Zuleta, and he played 79 games for the Chicago Cubs in 2000-1. What makes Zuleta interesting, though, is his production in Japan the past three seasons.
Zuleta, 31, hit 109 home runs to tie for the most in the Pacific League. According to his agent, Gene Casaleggio, he has hit seven home runs and batted .273 against Daisuke Matsuzaka, the star pitcher who is negotiating with the Boston Red Sox.
"He's a guy who's seen Matsuzaka and had success off him in very big playoff games," Casaleggio said. "He's seen him more than anybody."
The Red Sox, who have until Dec. 14 to sign Matsuzaka, reached a two-year deal yesterday with Hideki Okajima, a left-handed reliever who was 2-2 with a 2.14 earned run average last season for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. The Yankees, with a lineup filled with left-handed hitters, may see a lot of Okajima in 2007.
"He's going be a valuable member of our bullpen," Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said. "But, if we do end up with two Japanese pitchers, that certainly would help the assimilation process, not only on the field, but also off the field."
The Yankees will begin negotiating next week with another left-handed Japanese pitcher, starter Kei Igawa, according to his agent, Arn Tellem. The Yankees won Igawa's rights Tuesday with a $26 million bid through the posting process.
Zuleta became an unrestricted free agent last night after spending the last three and a half seasons with a team now known as the Softbank Hawks. Zuleta is hoping to become the rare position player to leave the majors for Japan and return to a prominent role, as Cecil Fielder did in 1990.
"How many non-Japanese positional players have come back here?" Casaleggio said. "For some reason, guys are looked at as having failed here. But he did a great job for the Cubs."
Zuleta, who is from Panama, batted .247 with nine home runs in 174 at-bats for the Cubs. He was 28 when he left for Japan. "We're going to pursue it," Casaleggio said. "We're going to the winter meetings and making ourselves available."
The Yankees have Andy Phillips at first base but are considering the veterans Shea Hillenbrand and Eduardo Perez. The team has decided that Jason Giambi, the primary first baseman since 2002, should be a full-time designated hitter.
I guess Brian Cashman wasn't kidding when he said the Yanks were "exploring all of our options." I just hope Vance Law and Tuffy Rhodes aren't also on the Yanks' free-agent hitlist.