In the Pirates' 120-year history, they never have fielded a player from Fidel Castro's Cuba or Japan, despite those nations' rich baseball traditions.
Soon, that should change.
The team yesterday added two right-handed starters as international free agents: Yoslan Herrera, a young Cuban defector, and Masumi Kuwata, a 21-year veteran of Japan's premier league. Herrera was signed to a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $1.92 million, and Kuwata announced at a news conference in Japan that he agreed to terms with the Pirates on a one-year, minor-league deal, believed to be worth $500,000.
The twofold development might seem jarring, given the team's relative inactivity in the global market over general manager Dave Littlefield's five-year tenure. But he described it as the culmination of a long process.
"We've been pursuing these things for the past few years," Littlefield said. "It doesn't always work out the way you want. No one ever gives kudos when you finish second in recruiting a player like that. Nor should they. But we've been out there looking for players, and we'll continue to be."
Speaking specifically of Herrera, his first noteworthy Latin American signing, Littlefield added, "We've had scouts tracking this guy for a while. The amateur draft and Latin America are the two most important areas as far as production of talent. We've put forth a lot more resources in Latin America the past few years."
Herrera, 25, was a rising star in Cuba, with a career mark of 18-7 with a 3.72 ERA. He was a member of the youth national team in 1999-2000, and the main national team in 2001-04.
But he has not pitched competitively in a season and a half, the result of a rather complex scenario.
Herrera defected in July 2005 and, according to agent Jaime Torres, made it to Miami on a boat. He spent seven months in that city, then traveled to the Dominican Republic.
Why go there?
One, Major League Baseball does not permit the signing of players who have Cuban residency, so he had to establish residency in any other country.
Two, the U.S. Treasury Department takes up to two years to award residency to Cuban defectors who are baseball players. The process is much quicker in the Dominican.
And, through all that, Herrera had no work visa, in the United States or the Dominican and, thus, was not permitted to play competitively anywhere.
All of which might explain Torres' boisterous reaction when asked how Herrera felt about the signing.
"Are you kidding me?" Torres said. "Do you know what these people go through for a chance to play in the majors? This was his dream."
Littlefield expressed no concern about Herrera's inactivity.
"Many other Cuban players have been able to work through the layoff in the past," Littlefield said. "Once he gets into a structured situation, he'll be fine."
Herrera's signing was delayed all last week while the Pirates took extra time to examine his Dec. 8 physical. Littlefield said yesterday that the team had "no problems" with Herrera's health.
Herrera is known to have sharp command, a fastball at 88-92 mph, a splitter, a slider, a changeup and an above-average curveball.
He is expected to open 2007 with Class AAA Indianapolis, Littlefield said.
Kuwata, 38, also should start out with Indianapolis, even though the minors doubtless will feel like a step down for a one-time star.
He pitched his entire career for Japan's storied Yomiuri Giants and quickly rose to prominence. But, since going 12-6 in 2002, he has won nine total games in the past four years while posting ERAs of 5.93, 6.47, 7.25 and 6.94. He missed all but three games last season to an injured right ankle.
"Obviously, he's a little older and has had some injuries," Littlefield said. "But he's been a very successful pitcher in Japan."
Two other teams, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, offered contracts, possibly for more cash. But Kuwata chose the Pirates, apparently because he felt they present the best chance to make the rotation.
Kuwata told reporters in Japan that the Pirates "suit my situation better."
NOTES -- The Pirates will not be a factor in the bidding for free-agent starter Joel Pineiro, an industry source said yesterday. They made preliminary contact with Pineiro, but the asking price was not to their liking. ... To clear space for Herrera on the 40-man roster, the Pirates designated infielder Craig Stansberry for assignment. Stansberry, 24, batted .243 with 13 home runs last season, split between Class AA Altoona and Indianapolis. ... Herrera's contract includes a signing bonus of $750,000, along with salaries of $380,000, $390,000 and $400,000. He also could achieve performance bonuses of up to $1.2 million annually.
Japanese pitcher Masumi Kuwata
Cuban pitcher Yoslan Herrera
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .