After completing his third year of major league service in 2009 and holding down the fort as the Red Sox' setup man for closer Jonathan Papelbon, Okajima became eligible for arbitration. That's how it works in the major leagues — you spend three seasons under the total contractual control of your first club, and then for years four through six, your paycheck is in the hands of the courts.
In America, that's standard operating procedure. No one told Okajima.
When sitting down last month with his agent, New York City-based Peter E. Greenberg, Okajima was mistakenly under the impression that after finishing his third season, he was bound to become a free agent. The misunderstanding evolved into a deep schism between Okajima and Greenberg, resulting in the Red Sox reliever deciding in mid-October to switch agents for good.
"The agent and I were not on the same page regarding contracts," Okajima said on Oct. 22. "There was no specific communication done, and I struggled to understand."
Okajima switched over to the Boston-based Joe Rosen two weeks ago. He's now on track to get his future situation figured out.
Rosen has stated publicly that his new client is "very" happy with the Red Sox and "likes it here." Apparently, Okajima wasn't as eager to hit the open market as we'd believed — he just wanted to take a gander and see what kind of money was out there.
Now that he's got an agent who will fight for him, let's see what the Red Sox to do keep him in town.
Okajima signed a two-year deal with Boston in November 2006, and the team picked up his $1.75 million option last November. The Red Sox now have until Nov. 10 — that would be Tuesday — to offer him arbitration and keep him around.
This should be a no-brainer. Okajima has been one of the best setup men in baseball for the past three years. He's given the Red Sox a career ERA of 2.72 and a WHIP of 1.12. For as long as Okajima's been seen stateside, Boston has had a reliable bridge from the seventh inning to victory. It's hard to put a price on that.
And if you did, it would certainly be less than what the Red Sox are paying for Okajima. Boston has never paid the setup man more than $2 million in a season, and his earnings in three big-league seasons total just about $4.2 million. That's around what the Yankees give Damaso Marte for a single year.
The Red Sox' entire bullpen is up in the air. Papelbon is arbitration eligible as well. Daniel Bard is under team control, but he needs a new contract — same for Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen. Takashi Saito won't stick around unless the Red Sox act on his 2010 option. Billy Wagner is a free agent, plain and simple.
The Red Sox need to get the ball rolling on keeping this bullpen intact, and Okajima is a logical first step. If the Sox value his services, and they do, they should let him know it — offer him a modest raise to $2.5 million or so, and make sure he knows he's still wanted in Boston.
Hideki Okajima isn't a guy you want on your bad side. Between Okajima and Peter Greenberg, there was a misunderstanding, and it led to a man getting fired. Theo Epstein won't make the same mistake.