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Are the Phillies interested in a top Japanese pitcher?

General manager Ruben Amaro recently flew to Japan to look at one of the country's best young starters. He's been logging quite a few air miles in recent days.


On Monday, the Phillies were among the first of what will be many teams to hold a private "showcase" in the Dominican Republic with Cuban slugger Yasmani Tomas. There is a lot of excitement about the 23-year-old outfielder, seen as a potential middle-of-the-order bat in the likeness of Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes.

That the Phils are out in front and considered among the favorites to land his services is enough to show the team has become more willing to do things they haven't done before. The traditional route, free agency, clearly does not hold the appeal for the Phillies that it once did.

"The talent crop of free agency has been dwindling pretty significantly," Amaro said to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Gelb. "There is probably more pitching options out there than there are bats. That's a little more fertile than in recent years. I think bats, in general, have been a dwindling asset."

While Amaro did not comment specifically on what they saw out of Tomas on Monday, it's hard to believe they would have seen anything that might dissuade them from making a serious offer for his services.

And while all this is pretty exciting, Tomas is apparently not the only international prospect the team has its eyes on.

I hope Amaro gets some good rewards out of his frequent flier miles.

Kenta Maeda is a 26-year-old right-hander who, in parts of seven seasons in Japan, has a career 2.45 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.72. Here is video of him throwing baseballs at people.

In order to negotiate with Maeda, teams will need to put together a $25 million posting fee, under new rules instituted last year. That number does not count against the luxury tax, and it's a figure most teams can afford. That means the competition for him will probably be fierce.

Scouts say Maeda is a smaller version of Masahiro Tanaka, with less of a ceiling but a similar floor, more of a middle-to-back-of-the-rotation starter. For teams not interested in the upper tier free agent arms (Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields), Maeda would be a younger, cheaper option when he's posted sometime in November.

Of course, the Phillies won't be alone in vying for his services. The Red Sox, Angels, Cubs and Yankees are just a few of the teams that have reportedly seen him pitch.

Back in June, Baseball America's Ben Badler wrote about a game Maeda pitched against 19-year-old Japanese phenom Shohei Otani, who is still likely several years away from coming to the Majors.

Maeda showed solid velocity, sitting at 90-94 mph, though a lot of scouts project him as a back-end starter because they don’t see a reliable out pitch he can lean on to miss bats. Maeda mixes four-seam fastballs and two-seamers, along with an 80-83 mph slider, an 83-85 mph changeup and an occasional slow curveball in the low-70s.

Maeda, 26, said in December that he would like to test his skills in MLB at some point in the future, which several MLB scouts believe means he’s likely headed over for the 2015 season. At 6 feet, 160 pounds, Maeda has a 2.88 ERA in 74 innings with 55 strikeouts and 17 walks. Maeda won the Sawamura Award (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young) in 2010 and was named the No. 7 prospect at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

The Phillies certainly could use all the starting pitching they can get. With questions about Cliff Lee's health and the mystery surrounding whether A.J. Burnett will be back next year, Amaro knows the team is in desperate need of starters.

These are exciting times. Where the Phils have focused much of their scouting and signing efforts in Latin America over the years (with mostly excellent success, by the way), they now appear to be branching out and at least doing their homework on some potential big-money international stars, in an attempt to use their financial advantage in the best way possible.

Amaro's travels signal the continuation of a shift in philosophy that started last year when they signed Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a contract. While they chose not to make the top offer to Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo back in August, the hope is they'll be able to land a bigger fish in Tomas, as well as this solid Japanese pitcher, provided the price is right.

Obviously, most other Major League teams are thinking the same thing. The Phils will have to make serious offers to these players if they want them, and then hope these "free agents" choose the Phillies.

Ruben Amaro, for better or worse, has a history of getting what he really wants. We'll see if that holds true this time around, too.