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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Dodgers agree to terms with Andruw Jones

Had a suspicion this might be coming. But had no idea it would be coming tonight. The guess here is Ethier or Kemp will now be traded for a frontline starting pitcher … or a third baseman if the Dodgers sign Kuroda. The guess here is also that this team just got a whole lot better, both on the field for next summer and from a bargaining position for the rest of this winter. Jones’ disappointing 2007 season notwithstanding, this is a huge move for the Dodgers — and easily the second-biggest move of these remarkably uneventful meetings so far by any club.

By Tony Jackson
Staff Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Dodgers reached a tentative agreement late Wednesday night with free-agent center fielder Andruw Jones, a source with knowledge of the situation said on the condition of anonymity. Jones, a 10-time Gold Glove winner who was once one of the game’s most feared hitters, will receive a two-year, $36 million contract if he passes a physical.
Jones, joins the Dodgers after more than 11 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, for whom he was a five-time All-Star.
Jones, 30, whose throwing arm is far superior to that of Juan Pierre, will become the Dodgers regular center fielder, forcing Pierre to move to left. That leaves two of the organization’s most highly touted young players, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, to split time in right field unless one of them is traded, something that becomes a strong possibility with the addition of Jones.
The Dodgers have identified another starting pitcher as their primary need of the winter. Adding either Ethier or Kemp to their list of available players for trade could help them acquire a marquee starter and possibly even put them in the running for Minnesota lefty Johan Santana, whom the Twins are looking to unload and who is easily the top pitcher available on either the trade or free-agent markets.
Jones is coming off a disappointing season offensively in which he batted .222, his career low for a full season, and hit just 26 home runs, matching his lowest total since he hit 18 in 1997, his first full year in the big leagues. But he has hit as many as 51 home runs in a season in 2005 and driven in as many as 129 runs in 2006.
Jones also has an especially close friendship with Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, the two having been longtime teammates with the Braves.
Jones is represented by notorious hardball agent Scott Boras, who was believed to be seeking a contract for his client in the neighborhood of the five-year, $90 million deal the Angels gave free-agent center fielder Torii Hunter last week. But as this week’s winter meetings wore on, it became increasingly clear that there wasn’t much of a market for Jones, especially at the price Boras had set for him.
As a result, he fell into the Dodgers’ price range. The deal is a win-win for both sides: the Dodgers aren’t locking themselves into a long-term commitment, and Jones has a chance to regain his form before possibly testing the market again after the 2009 season.
The contract will pay Jones a $12 million signing bonus, a $9 million salary in 2008 and $15 million in 2009.

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Recommended reading

Was just handed a copy of a newly released book by longtime Dodgers scout Mel Didier, who now works for the Texas Rangers, called Podnuh, Let Me Tell You a Story. The book was co-authored by reporter T.R. Sullivan, a great friend of mine. Anyway, Mel Didier is a legend in the scouting biz, and while I haven’t had time to open the book yet, I’m sure I’ll spend a good deal of the flight home reading it. The book, whose cover features a mug shot of Didier superimposed over the iconic photo of Kirk Gibson jubilantly circling the bases after his game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, was self-published. So do Mel and T.R. a favor and buy a copy by calling (866) 405-1300 or by email at Cost is $24.95 plus tax, shipping and handling. I’m guessing you won’t regret it.

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Tomorrow’s notes

By Tony Jackson
Staff Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Wednesday that outfielder Gary Matthews, who proved this year to be a valuable presence in the middle of the lineup, will begin next season back at the top, either leading off or batting second. Third baseman Chone Figgins will occupy whichever of those spots Matthews doesn’t.
The switch is a nod to last week’s addition of free-agent center fielder Torii Hunter, who likely will bat fifth behind Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson.
“Obviously, Vlad will be the keystone,” Scioscia said. “It will be a question of whether we are setting the table enough. Whether teams are pitching to Vlad or not, you have to create (run-scoring) opportunities. The whole lineup is contingent on how the pieces fit and whether we’re setting the table enough for Vlad or we need to adjust.”
Scioscia said likely No. 9 hitter Erick Aybar — who probably will be the Angels’ primary shortstop no matter how much club officials continue to pay lip service to Maicer Izturis as a candidate for the job — also figures into that tablesetting formula for later innings.
Scioscia contined to say that outfielders Anderson, Guerrero, Hunter and Matthews will rotate into the designated hitter role so they all can be part of the everyday lineup and each can get adequate playing time in the outfield. But Hunter is a seven-time Gold Glove winner, and Matthews, who figures to see time at all three spots, also is an above-average defensive outfielder. That means Anderson and Guerrero likely will get the bulk of the DH duty, perhaps as many as 60-70 games apiece, and that is a role neither of them relishes.
“We want to keep those four bats … connected in the lineup for as many games as we can, so one of them is obviously going to have to DH,” Scioscia said.

With the Dodgers and Seattle the perceived frontrunners in the bidding for Japanese free-agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, Mariners manager John McLaren sounded cautiously optimistic two weeks after traveling to Japan with general manager Bill Bavasi for a face-to-face meeting with the right-hander.
“I don’t think we’re in the driver’s seat, but I like our chances,” McLaren said. “I was very impressed speaking with him. One thing that impressed me was that he put a list of questions in front of us, and they were about his family more than him. It shows what kind of player he is. We know he is a bulldog. He is a control guy, a fierce competitor, and we like his ability. He is well scouted, and we have had him well scouted.
“I don’t care who is the frontrunner as long as we get him. That is the bottom line.”
With the Mariners, Dodgers and Arizona all having offered Kuroda a three-year deal between $27 million and $33 million, the Mariners are believed to be on the verge of increasing their offer to four years — something that almost certainly would prompt the Dodgers to follow suit at a time when Kuroda appears to be their last chance of landing a frontline pitcher.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti declined to say whether he was prepared to offer Kuroda more than a three-year contract.

A major-league source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the team’s spring-training trip to China and Taiwan is set and that the only reason it hasn’t been announced is that the accompanying paperwork isn’t complete. The Dodgers are slated for split-squad exhibition games with San Diego on March 14-15 in Beijing, followed by one or two games with a Taiwanese national team over the ensuing two or three days.

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Tomorrow’s notebook

By now, you have no doubt heard about the six-player blockbuster between Florida and Detroit, with the Motor City Kitties picking up both Dontrelle Willis AND Miguel Cabrera for two of the Tigers’ top prospects and four other guys. The American League gets better and the National League gets worse. Like that needed to happen.

By Tony Jackson
Staff Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The likelihood that the Dodgers will return from these winter meetings empty-handed increased dramatically on Tuesday. One of the players they coveted, Florida third baseman Miguel Cabrera, was traded to Detroit in a blockbuster, six-player deal, and another, Minnesota left-hander Johan Santana, appeared on the verge of being dealt to Boston.
That leaves Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, a free agent seeking to pitch in the United States after 11 seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, as the last potential impact player the Dodgers were pursuing that they still have a shot of actually getting.
All indications are that shot is at least as good as anyone else’s.
Kuroda, 32, is known to have received formal offers from the Dodgers, Seattle and Arizona, all of which are believed to be for three years and range from $27 million to $33 million. Kuroda has a strong preference for the West Coast, and the Dodgers and Mariners, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, are the two clubs with the best chance of signing him. There were indications Kuroda might prefer the Dodgers because of his longtime friendship with closer Takashi Saito and because playing in Los Angeles potentially would present Kuroda with more lucrative endorsement opportunities than Seattle.
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti spoke directly with Steve Hilliard, Kuroda’s San Diego-based agent, for the first time on Tuesday. Until then, assistant GM Kim Ng had been dealing with Hilliard on behalf of the club.
“They aren’t quite sure (of a timetable) yet,” Colletti said. “Most of all, we wanted to let them know we have interest and to keep us in mind. I told him to give us a call when they know more or need to know more.”
Kuroda is planning to visit Seattle and Phoenix next week. Colletti said he wasn’t sure if Kuroda planned to visit Los Angeles during that trip, but logic would suggest he will.

Although a rumor circulated for most of the day that the Dodgers were discussing a trade with Baltimore that would bring left-hander Erik Bedard to Los Angeles, Colletti said no deal with the Orioles was forthcoming.
The Orioles reportedly were asking for reliever Jonathan Broxton and outfielder Matt Kemp, two of the Dodgers’ most promising young players. The Dodgers would be hard-pressed to trade Broxton, their fireballing setup man, given that Saito will turn 38 in February and that Broxton is the club’s only alternative to Saito in the closer’s role.
“I’m not interested in trading Broxton,” Colletti said. “It would depend on who the other side is offering, but I have never been offered a one-for-one trade (for Broxton).”

Angels GM Tony Reagins, who in his first two months on the job has been painfully reticent with reporters, offered a tantalizing tidbit in his daily media briefing on Tuesday.
“Some interesting things have surfaced … in the last 24 hours,” Reagins said.
True to form, Reagins declined to say what those things were. But without mentioning names, he did say what they weren’t.
“We haven’t had any discussions about adding starting pitching,” he said, ruling out Santana. “We like our staff. I think a lot of clubs would covet the position we’re in as far as pitching depth.”

One more indication that new Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly is the heir apparent to manager Joe Torre when Torre’s contract expires after the 2010 season: while Torre is missing these meetings for personal reasons, Mattingly is here, and when reporters went into Colletti’s suite for their daily briefing, he was there, too, along with player development director DeJon Watson and special assistants Vance Lovelace and Bill Mueller.
Coaches rarely attend the winter meetings. Managers, however, almost always attend and are part of their GMs’ inner circle, participating in meetings along with all the top front-office brass.

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