FEB. 4: Okajima can earn $1MM+ if he makes the roster and meets incentives in his contract, reports ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick (on Twitter).
FEB. 3: The Orioles and left-handed reliever Hideki Okajima have agreed to a minor league contract, reports Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun. Okajima’s deal does not include an invite to Major League Spring Training, per Encina, so he’ll look to earn a spot in the bullpen at Triple-A Norfolk and eventually work his way back into the Major Leagues. Back in December, during the Winter Meetings, it was reported that Okajima was seeking a return to the Majors.
The 40-year-old Okajima’s deal marks his return to American baseball after spending the past two seasons in Japan. Were he to make the Orioles’ roster, it’d be Okajima’s first appearance in the Majors since a brief stint with the Athletics in 2013. Of course, Okajima is known much better for his time with the Red Sox, for whom he pitched from 2007-11. In parts of those five seasons, Okajima worked to a 3.11 ERA with 7.9 K/9 against 3.1 BB/9 to go along with a 36.8 percent ground-ball rate. Okajima was lethal against left-handed batters, holding them to a paltry .216/.277/.323 batting line in his time with the Red Sox. While right-handed batters fared better against Okajima, their collective .246/.323/.397 batting line wasn’t exactly impressive in its own right.
Okajima returned to Japan following the 2013 season and posted outstanding numbers with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks — a 2.11 ERA with 36 strikeouts against 14 walks (four of which were intentional) in 42 1/3 innings. This past season, though, he threw just 7 1/3 innings with the Yokohama Bay Stars and surrendered seven runs.
It may take a particularly strong showing in Norfolk and/or some injuries around the organization to get Okajima a shot at the Major Leagues, as the Orioles have no shortage of lefties available. Southpaw Zach Britton has emerged as one of the game’s most effective closers, and the O’s have a number of left-handed options to bridge the gap from rotation to Britton in the form of Brian Matusz, T.J. McFarland and C.J. Riefenhauser. Beyond that, left-handers Chris Lee and Chris Jones are both already on the 40-man roster, and while each is a starter, it’s possible that Baltimore could bring either up and use them in the ’pen, temporarily, should the need arise throughout the year. Doing so would prevent them from having to make a 40-man roster move to add Okajima.