Dodgers make Saito a free agent

Dodgers make Saito a free agent

LOS ANGELES -- Nobody blinked in the staredown between the Dodgers and Takashi Saito, who was not tendered a contract by Friday night's deadline and became a free agent.

Had Saito been tendered, he would have been eligible for salary arbitration and a raise from $2 million to about $3.5 million. Because the right-hander is coming off an elbow injury that sidelined him for two months, the Dodgers were only willing to take as much risk as a $2.5 million contract plus incentives. It really was a "staredown," as general manager Ned Colletti described. There were no negotiations after Tuesday.

So the 39-year-old Saito, the highest-ranked National League reliever based on the two-year Elias Rankings, becomes an unrestricted free agent, along with other Dodgers non-tenders Angel Berroa, Scott Proctor, Yhency Brazoban and Mario Alvarez. They are able to sign with any team, including the Dodgers. Brazoban and Alvarez are likely to sign Minor League contracts with the Dodgers. Negotiations with Saito and Berroa could resume.

Saito has told friends he's healthy and intends to play in 2009, whether it's with the Dodgers or not.

"We're expecting quite a few teams to be calling in regards to Takashi Saito," agent Nez Balelo said. "We respect the Dodgers' stance and we're moving on and looking forward to free agency."

The departures bring the number of free agents from this year's playoff club to 17, with only Casey Blake re-signing so far. Without Saito, Jonathan Broxton becomes the de facto closer, although management has conceded his inconsistency is likely to lead to the acquisition of a veteran for late-inning insurance. Corey Wade also could get some consideration.

"Takashi Saito's story of reaching the Major Leagues has been inspiring and he's accomplished a tremendous amount in his time as a Dodger," Colletti said in a statement. "The door remains open to bring him back in 2009, but right now there's just a difference of opinion on his contract.

"We have a great deal of respect for him as a player and a person and we know how difficult the last two or three months of the season were for him from a health perspective. Hopefully we'll be able to come to an agreement with him down the road."

If this is the conclusion to Saito's career as a Dodger, it is a somber end to an otherwise unlikely Cinderella story. Generally overlooked by Major League teams, Saito was brought to Spring Training by the Dodgers on a Minor League contract in 2006 and he didn't even make the big club to start the season.

But by May he had assumed Eric Gagne's closer role and proved to be a worthy replacement, compiling 63 saves in 2006-07 and being named to the National League All-Star team twice.

Hot Stove

He wasn't quite as sharp during the first half of 2008 and in July suffered a partially torn elbow ligament that usually requires Tommy John reconstruction. Instead, Saito opted for an experimental stem-cell injection and was able to make six September appearances and a shaky one in the first round of the playoffs, then was left off the roster for the NL Championship Series.

He had 18 saves and a 2.49 ERA in 2008 and ranks eighth on the all-time franchise saves list with 81.

Berroa is coming off a multi-year deal in which Kansas City paid him $4.75 million last year. Rules prevent a team from cutting a salary by more than 20 percent, so the Dodgers would have had an arbitration submittal number of at least $3.8 million, more than they'd want to pay Berroa.

Berroa, 31 next season, was acquired at midseason from the Royals. He emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. With Rafael Furcal injured and rookie Chin-lung Hu struggling, Berroa assumed the starting shortstop job just as the Dodgers put on their late surge to the division title.

He was steady on defense and picked it up offensively the final two months after hitting .202 in his first 52 games to finish at .230. With Furcal now a free agent that also could sign anywhere, Berroa could get a shot at a starting or backup job if he re-signs.

Proctor, 32 in January, pitched in 41 games before requiring elbow surgery. He finished the season 2-0 with a 6.05 ERA.

Brazoban, 28, once was a promising closer, but his career was derailed by injuries and weight problems. He had surgeries on his elbow and shoulder and spent most of the last three years on the disabled list.

Alvarez, 24, is a right-handed pitcher who missed the season with arm problems.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.