For the second time in two winters, Hideki Matsui will be hitting the open market. In his age 36 campaign with the Angels, Matsui hit .274/.361/.459, good for a 125 wRC+. That performance is right in line with Matsui’s play with the Yankees in his final three years. In 558 plate appearances in 2010, that comes out to 1.9 WAR as the Angels’ primary DH.
Seeing as the vast majority of designated hitters finished with 1.0 WAR or fewer in 2010, that makes Matsui one of the top designated hitters in the league. With David Ortiz’s option picked up by the Red Sox, Jim Thome has to be considered the prize of the DH market, but Matsui is right up there with Johnny Damon, Vladimir Guerrero, and Russell Branyan for second.
Matsui did see some decline in his skills last season. The discipline is still there, as Matsui recorded his fifth straight walk rate above 10%. He also slugged 21 home runs with a .185 ISO. But Matsui’s strikeout rate ballooned to 20%, up from 16% a year ago and 13% for most of his MLB career. This should concern teams, as strikeout rate is typically quick to stabilize, and the trend of less and less contact makes sense given Matsui’s advanced age. It’s possible that his bat is slowing down – for the first time in his career, Matsui posted a pitch type linear weight value below +1 per 100 fastballs seen – but that’s speculation that would need to be corroborated by a scout and is just one possible explanation.
Only some American League teams are set at the DH position. Baltimore has Luke Scott, Oakland has Jack Cust, Kansas City has Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue, and Cleveland has Travis Hafner. The rest of the league has at least some uncertainty if not an outright opening at the position. Even though Matsui’s only plausible role is now that of a designated hitter, he does that job well enough to deserve a raise over the $6 million he received last year.
A team shooting for a playoff berth should be willing to spend the $9 million or so that Matsui’s play is worth on the open market for one season. Even a bit of an overpay on a one year contract could be justified, as I feel that in some cases, a team may be willing to pay for the luxury of avoiding commitment on a second season. Right now, the most plausible destinations appear to be Chicago (to replace Mark Kotsay), Detroit (to replace the departing Johnny Damon), or Texas (if Vladimir Guerrero doesn’t return). Outside of the five teams listed above, though, I would not be surprised by any AL team making a play for Matsui’s talents.
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