Uncertainty looms over Kuroda and Dodgers
With Trade Deadline approaching, pitching ace could be dealt
LOS ANGELES -- Hiroki Kuroda left Japan four years ago for the Major League experience, but being Deadline trade bait wasn't what he had in mind.
He even negotiated a complete no-trade clause into his contract, but that hasn't prevented him from becoming the focal point in the Dodgers' upcoming decision to turn into sellers at the Deadline for the first time in almost two decades.
The last time the Dodgers moved older players for prospects in the middle of a season gone bad was 1992, when they dumped veterans Kal Daniels and Stan Javier for three young players. That was the notorious 99-loss season, the worst in Los Angeles history. Five years earlier, they sent current pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to Oakland for pitching prospect Tim Belcher, who helped them win the World Series the next season.
This year, the Dodgers are on pace for 91 losses and without officially running up the white flag, management has already talked to Kuroda about waiving the no-trade clause. When he starts Friday night to open the Dodgers homestand against Washington, it could be Kuroda's last as a Dodger.
The 36-year-old Kuroda has what contending teams want -- sharp stuff, a healthy arm, stretch-run and postseason success. He's also such a creature of routine that every bullpen session is exactly 36 pitches, unless he wants to change his luck and he throws only 35. Yet, he said the sudden attention and uncertainty hasn't affected him.
"Not really, other than I'm asked repeatedly about it," he said. "It's an honor as a baseball player that teams want you. But I'd rather think about my start Friday night than worry about it. I have time before I have to make a decision."
Teammates Casey Blake and Ted Lilly came to the Dodgers through mid-season trades -- without the leverage of a no-trade clause -- so they have some insight into Kuroda's situation.
Blake remembers the days leading up to his trade to the Dodgers, which preceded the acquisition of Manny Ramirez, and the combination provided the Dodgers with a lift that carried them into the NLCS.
"It can get in your head," Blake said of the rumors. "You have mixed feelings. You're a little bummed out because the team is not doing what was expected, or having the season it wanted to have. You're comfortable there, having played half the season with the team, and now the possibility of being traded to a different team is pretty good. You try to prepare yourself for that. You think about who that new club might be, their situation. It could be a great career move.
"For Hiro, being from a different country puts a different twist on it. The language barrier could be tough. It's one thing going into a clubhouse not knowing anybody, but then not knowing the language, I mean, he knows a lot of English and he'll probably have an interpreter, but it's just one more thing that adds a different dimension. For me, the uncertainty, I actually was playing well through it all. I stepped my game up a little bit. Not really because of the trade but I was just playing well at the time."
Blake welcomed the chance of playing into October, even though he acknowledged the trade was an adjustment.
Lilly came to the Dodgers last summer and, had he possessed Kuroda's no-trade clause, he wouldn't have approved it.
"I didn't want to go, but it got to the point where (Cubs general manager Jim) Hendry came up and told me I really had no option, You're going," said Lilly. "Ownership had made the decision. At that point, I realized I had to give up hope of staying and came to grips with it.
"I think Hiro wants to be here, but the club is going to do what's best for the club. Unfortunately, we put ourselves in this situation where he's being talked about in a trade because he's a valuable commodity, understandably. It's kind of disappointing. He's a great teammate, a leader to the young guys. Even if there's a language barrier, the young guys watch how he goes about his business. It's just really disappointing that we're in the position where the club might have to trade him."
Kuroda isn't to blame with an ERA of 3.13. The Dodgers have scored only 24 runs total in his 11 losses. When he says the uncertainty hasn't bothered him, it's hard to argue.
"You see his personality, he seems to let stuff like that roll off pretty easy," said Lilly. "You watch him, the way our season has gone and how well he's pitched, he just hasn't had the results he deserved, but he continues to go about his business the same way as if he doesn't seem to let too many things affect him."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.