PAWTUCKET — Hideki Okajima kicked off his second tour of duty with the PawSox Thursday, admitting that McCoy Stadium was the last place he expected to set foot in. Such sentiment can be linked to the events of last Friday, when Boston designated the 35-year-old reliever for assignment.
“I expected to be playing for another team at this point, but things didn’t turn out that way, so I’m here now,” expressed Okajima via translator Jeff Cutler. “I was certainly surprised [to be taken off the 40-man roster in favor of acquired Colorado reliever Franklin Morales]. I thought I was pitching well and could contribute (to the Red Sox) the longer I was there.”
Why Okajima went through waivers unclaimed and resurfaced back in Boston’s lap stems from the $1.75 million price tag dangling from his left arm.
“If he had been released, the team that claimed him would only have to pay the prorated minimum. My guess is that it would have been a different story, but if a team has to play him his full salary … my guess is that it was more of a financial consideration than a baseball consideration,” explained Joe Rosen, Okajima’s Boston-based agent. “You don’t see a lot of guys claimed off waivers who have that type of salary.”
Okajima’s sample size in Boston was relatively small — he made seven appearances totaling 8 1/3 innings in the near month’s time he served as a pseudo lefthanded specialist. The emergence of Rich Hill coupled with the arrival of the oft-erratic Morales created a logjam in which Okajima was ruled the odd man out.
“I didn’t think this would happen,” said Okajima, the onetime eighth-inning bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon. “It’s unfortunate that things turned out this way.”
Said Rosen, “He was surprised and I was too. You never expect a player of Hideki’s caliber and ability to be DFA’d, but that’s a baseball and a business decision made by the Red Sox and we dealt with it.”
Finding himself in baseball limbo afforded Okajima the chance to spend more time with his family as he waited to see how everything would shake down.
“I didn’t know what was going to be happening or where I was going to be going,” he said when asked how he managed to stay sane while his career was on hold. “[Being DFA’d] means that the team doesn’t need me anymore, so I wouldn’t say that I’m glad to be [in Pawtucket] just because it’s a place that I know.”
PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler held a brief conference with Okajima, inquiring whether he felt ready to return to the mound. Given that he hasn’t pitched since May 9, Okajima expressed that he didn’t feel quite comfortable in terms of his availability for Thursday’s game against Indianapolis.
“I wasn’t able to use Fenway [Park] to practice so I struggled to find a place to practice and stay sharp,” said Okajima.
“Hideki has been working out and throwing the moment he got DFA’d,” said Rosen, providing an answer the polar opposite of Okajima’s. “He was obviously going to have to pitch for Pawtucket or another team, so he’s ready.”
Okajima was asked to play the role of the loyal soldier when the season began, knowing that if he held up his end of the bargain, a return to Boston would materialize. After being exposed to waivers and ending back up in the minors, there is a sense that Okajima is just as determined to get back up to the big leagues.
“I have to get myself in a position where I’m pitching well and possibly get called up again or possibly even traded sometime later this season,” said Okajima. “I’m just looking forward to continue playing baseball.”
“Hideki is a professional baseball player. I don’t think whether he’s at Pawtucket or Boston is going to change how he goes about preparing himself. He’s one of the hardest working players I’ve ever come across,” Rosen said. “Whether [his time in Triple-A] is for him to showcase himself for the Red Sox or showcase himself for another team in a potential trade, he’s just going to pitch to the best of his ability. Hopefully the Red Sox recognize that or someone else does.”