Dodgers HAVE NOT signed Hiroki Kuroda

So far, anyway. This despite media reports out of Japan that he has settled on the Dodgers, reports that are being denied on this side of the Pacific. However, it is beginning to appear — based on what few details I have been able to unearth — that he is leaning STRONGLY toward the Dodgers over Seattle … and that the decison is coming soon. Very soon.

Just filed this notebook for tomorrow’s paper. So if you’re reading it tonight, just change all the todays to tomorrows.

By Tony Jackson
Staff Writer
Despite published reports out of Japan on Tuesday that free-agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda had decided to sign with the Dodgers, general manager Ned Colletti and Asian operations director Acey Kohrogi both said they had no knowledge of such a development. But in what might be a telling sign, Kuroda has scrapped plans for what would have amounted to a recruiting trip to Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix this week and instead will decide from Japan which U.S. team he wants to pitch for.
That decision, which is believed to have been narrowed to the Dodgers and Mariners, could come as early as today, a Japanese source said.
Steve Hilliard, Kuroda’s San Diego-based agent, didn’t return a message left at his office from the Daily News.
Both the Dodgers and Mariners have made three-year offers to Kuroda, who spent the past 11 seasons with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League. Chugoku Shimbun, a Hiroshima-based newspaper, reported that the Dodgers had increased their offer to four years and $40 million, but a source close to the club flatly denied that report.
The Mariners’ latest offer is believed to be slightly higher ($33 million) than that of the Dodgers (about $30 million). Still, Kuroda reportedly is leaning toward the Dodgers for a variety of reasons.
Kuroda has a close friendship with Dodgers closer Takashi Saito, and the two are represented in Japan by the same Osaka-based sports agency. Former major-league reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, a close advisor to Kuroda, has a home in Orange County. And finally, Los Angeles has a bigger Asian population than Seattle and theoretically would offer Kuroda more lucrative endorsement opportunities, possibly in tandem with Saito.
However, the Mariners clearly need Kuroda more than the Dodgers, whose winterlong search for another starting pitcher belies the fact they already have five starters with proven track records. The Mariners’ desperation could push them to increase their offer, in terms of both dollars and years. That might be enough to lure Kuroda to Seattle because it isn’t clear whether the Dodgers are prepared to follow suit.
Another possible factor: Washington has no state income tax, which in real terms makes the difference between the Dodgers’ and Mariners’ current offers more than $1 million annually.
If the Dodgers do end up with Kuroda, he would be slotted somewhere in the middle of a rotation that already includes Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Esteban Loaiza and what club officials hope will be a healthy Jason Schmidt. One of those five would then go to the bullpen or be traded.
Arizona, which offered Kuroda three years and $27 million, apparently is out of the running.

Free-agent center fielder Andruw Jones passed his physical examination on Tuesday, finalizing his two-year, $36.2 million contract with the Dodgers. Jones will be formally introduced during a news conference today at Dodger Stadium.
The addition of Jones, a 10-time Gold Glove winner with middle-of-the-order power, will force Juan Pierre to move from center to left. That leaves Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, two promising young hitters capable of playing every day, to share time in right field unless one of them is traded. But club officials now seem willing to keep both players, leaving the team especially deep in the outfield in the event of an injury.
Manager Joe Torre could use the left-handed Ethier and the right-handed Kemp in a straight platoon, leaving whoever doesn’t start on a given night as a potent bat off the bench.

The Dodgers search for a reserve catcher has been narrowed to three free agents: Gary Bennett, Damian Miller and this year’s backup backstop, Mike Lieberthal.
Bennett, a career backup who will turn 36 in April, batted .252 while catching 52 games for St. Louis this season, striking out just 16 times in 155 at-bats. Miller, 38, hit .237 for Milwaukee while catching 56 games in his first year backing up Johnny Estrada after catching at least 97 games each of the previous seven seasons. Lieberthal, who will turn 36 next month, hit .234 while catching 31 games for the Dodgers.
Even if Torre uses All-Star Russell Martin more judiciously than former manager Grady Little — Martin caught 145 games this season — the backup isn’t likely to play more than three or four times a month, something Lieberthal seemed OK with for the most part.
The Dodgers declined a $1.5 million option for 2008 on Lieberthal, who made $1.15 million this year. Bennett made $850,000 with the Cardinals, Miller $2.25 million with the Brewers.

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