When Kenshin Kawakami was signed last winter, most Braves fans didn't know what to expect. In fact, it's conceivable the Braves didn't know quite what the former Japanese star would bring to the table as a member of the rotation.
But in his first season in the States, Kawakami more than held his own. The right-hander finished with a 7-12 record and a 3.86 ERA. His hits to innings pitched ratio was solid, with 153 hits allowed in 156.1 innings pitched. Kawakami struck out 105 and walked 57, while opponents hit .260 against him.
Kawakami was in the rotation until the end of the year, when he was moved to the bullpen to make room for Tim Hudson. In his 25 starts, Kawakami was 7-10 with a 3.97 ERA. As a reliever, Kawakami had an ERA of 2.63 in seven appearances.
There were games when Kawakami showed how dominating he could be on the mound, like his eight shutout innings against Toronto on May 22. He outpitched Roy Halladay that night. Kawakami also had a huge performance on August 8 in Los Angeles, again pitching eight shutout innings.
Kawakami was inconsistent at times, and Bobby Cox kept him on a rather short leash for the most part. But there is little doubt teams had trouble hitting his wicked curveball, and he was seemed to get more comfortable with more time on the mound in his new league.
Now that the Braves could have six pitchers for five spots, as long as they re-sign Hudson as expected, Kawakami's future is a bit up in the air.
Will the Braves keep Kawakami, and likely slide him in as the number five starter next season? Or will they take advantage of his value and trade him for a bat to make room for Hudson?
If the Braves were to trade Kawakami, they'd risk losing the goodwill gained by his signing. The Braves said they wanted the Kawakami signing to open the door for them to Japan. If they trade Kawakami a year after signing him, teams would undoubtedly use that against him the next time they are negotiating with a Japanese player.
And even if the Braves do decide to trade Kawakami, what would they be able to get in return? Well, again, with the pitching market this winter being very thin, there would teams who will have interest in Kawakami, even with the $6.667 he is due in both 2010 and in 2011.
Perhaps the Braves could get a solid reliever to compliment Peter Moylan and Kris Medlen next season if they traded Kawakami.
In fact, since Kawakami makes less than half of Derek Lowe, that might make him more marketable. But again, do the Braves want to trade him after only one year?
More than likely, the Braves would prefer to keep Kawakami over Lowe. It's hard to imagine a fifth starter that makes $15 million per season, which is what Lowe would be if he were to remain. Even being paid that much money, Lowe would probably be behind Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, and Javier Vazquez if he is back next season.
It depends, of course, on the Braves finding a taker for Lowe and his $45 million left on his contract. That is what could make Kawakami more vulnerable to leave. If the Braves find it easier to trade Kawakami, they may have no other choice.
But Kawakami could possibly be the best number five starter in the game next season. He probably pitched at a number four level this past season, and if he continued to improve it's possible he could be labeled as a clear middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. So if the Braves have him that low in the rotation, that would be pretty good value.
It's debatable whether or not Kawakami was really necessary, but he did well enough in his rookie year to give everyone hope he can be a contributor in the next two seasons. But the Braves may have to make a tough call on Kawakami if they are to acquire a solid bat for the lineup.
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.
The Braves Show's Bill Shanks writes about the crowded Atlanta rotation…