Four years ago it was Jose Contreras, a year later came Alex Rodriguez, following the 2004 season Carl Pavano was the man and last winter Johnny Damon provided center of intrigue.
So what player is going to serve as the proverbial rope in this offseason's tug-of-war between the Red Sox and Yankees? His name is Daisuke Matsuzaka, and he is about to add a whole lot of spice to baseball's hot-stove season.
Matsuzaka is a 26-year-old right-handed starting pitcher who has shown big league scouts enough to lump him in with Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt on the very short list of available free-agent hurlers who could slide into the top of a team's rotation.
"He's the real deal," said one National League general manager. "We thought we might have some interest in him but then it started to come out what the posting price might be, and it got too expensive for us."
When it becomes too pricey for most, that's when you can count on the Sox and Yanks to be involved.
Sometime in early November, the mere rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka (and his soon-to-be agent, Scott Boras) will be pursued by interested major league clubs via sealed bids. Word throughout baseball is that the winning bid, or posting fee, will be between $15 million and $30 million and is slated to be awarded to the highest bidder in mid-December. The posting fee goes to Matsuzaka's Japanese League team, the Seibu Lions.
The highest posting fee ever paid for a player was to Ichiro Suzuki in 2000, when Seattle doled out $13.125 million to negotiate with the outfielder.
The winning organization will have 30 days to talk with Matsuzaka, who made slightly less than $5 million this past season with the Lions. Preliminary estimates suggest that the pitcher, who introduced himself to U.S. baseball fans by earning the MVP award in the World Baseball Classic last March, will garner a four- to five-year contract, paying out between $10 million to $12 million per year.
In the end, whichever team claims victory in the Matsuzaka Sweepstakes will have potentially invested $80 million to $90 million in a pitcher who hasn't thrown a single major league pitch.
But the Red Sox and Yankees have a need, and, by most accounts, this is the guy who just might be best suited to plug whatever hole either team is saddled with.
"It might depend on the team, but he could potentially be a No. 1 (starter)," said Kat Nagao, a writer for Monthly Major League, a Japan-based magazine, who has seen Matsuzaka pitch eight times over the past five years. "He has the best slider in Japan right now. His fastball was clocked at 96 mph in the WBC, but that was just in spring training time. Usually, it's in the low to mid-90s. The only thing that worries me about him is that he has pitched a lot."
Like many Japanese pitchers, who usually operate in six-man rotations for the country's top professional league, Matsuzaka consistently operates with pitch counts well over the major league norm. It was, in fact, a 250-pitch, 17-inning high school performance by the 6-foot-1 hurler which helped build his legend.
A stigma also accompanies some Japanese pitchers, such as former New York Yankees righty Hideki Irabu, which suggests their effectiveness wanes after big league hitters get used to their different approach.
"If you remember, for a couple of months Irabu was the best pitcher in baseball," Nagao said. "That was something the Japanese people dream about. But with Matsuzaka, instead of one month, they think it can be for a whole season.
"The one thing I can say is that Matsuzaka is a very, very smart pitcher. He's got good stuff, but his way of pitching is also very smart. He learns a lot from his mistakes. Every time I see him, he is always changing. The last time I saw him, which was this season in Japan, he was much more mature a pitcher than I had seen before."
According the Web site Matsuzaka Watch this season, his eighth as a professional, he totaled a 2.04 ERA, .195 batting average against and a .234 on-base average against, all of which would have been tops among major league pitchers. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings of 9.86 would have been second only to Scott Kazmir, and Curt Schilling would have been the only big leaguer to best him in strikeouts-to-walks ratio (5.97).
Much like in the Contreras situation, whatever uncertainty scouts may have concerning Matsuzaka's Japanese league totals can be tempered by his performances in international competition.
He has pitched in four major international competitions - the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the '04 Athens Olympics, '04 MLB All-Star Tour in Japan and the WBC. In Sydney, Matsuzaka pitched 10 innings against United States hitters, allowing two runs.
While there was no U.S. representative in Athens, Matsuzaka did leave an important impression with a 13-strikeout showing in a seven-inning outing against Australia. Managing the Aussies that day was Jon Deeble, who also serves as Boston's Pacific Rim scouting coordinator.
It only got better for Matsuzaka in his next test against the United States during the 2004 All-Star tour. Against a lineup that included Carl Crawford, Hank Blalock, Moises Alou, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Brad Wilkerson, the pitcher gave up just one run on five hits over nine innings.
Then came the WBC, in which he led the Japanese team to the tournament's first-ever title. In three outings stretching 13 innings, he allowed just two runs while striking out 10. It lowered his ERA in international competition to a minuscule 1.80.
His next test will be during MLB's next trip to Japan in the upcoming All-Star tour, which takes place Nov. 3 to 8 and figures to allow for one Matsuzaka appearance.
And if you think that the pride of Japan hasn't become the latest hot commodity for a league starved for pitching, realize the subtle shot across the bow the Yankees have already sent. In September, New York hired Shoichi Kida to become one of its main scouts in the Far East.
This appears to be no coincidence. Kida not only played with Matsuzaka in high school, but briefly played with him with the Seibu Lions. Whatever the motivation, just like when Boston hired Cuban Euclides Rojas while wooing of Contreras, it certainly doesn't hurt.
"In Japan, we were always told the reason they hired that guy was because of Matsuzaka," Nagao said. "It's very, very obvious. It's crazy. If it wasn't for the posting system, it would be obvious where he would be going."