TAMPA, Fla. -- Hiroki Kuroda exceeded the expectations of many in his first season with the Yankees, and as much as he enjoyed the experience, it was not an easy decision for the right-hander to return.
Because his family makes their home in Los Angeles, where he spent the first four seasons of his Major League career, Kuroda wrestled with his options over the winter -- including going back to the Dodgers, who were among the clubs that made an offer.
Ultimately, Kuroda accepted a one-year, $15 million deal to return to New York, where he won 16 games last season and hopes to continue being a trusted piece of the rotation this year.
"It was a good decision, but it was hard," Kuroda said through an interpreter. "There were options that I had. There were offers from other teams, but I ended up making the decision to stay with the Yankees."
The 38-year-old Kuroda, who said that he prefers one-year contracts so he can focus fully on each season, said that it was "really appealing" to come back to the Yankees' professional, veteran-heavy clubhouse.
"When I look at my career, obviously I don't know how many years I have left in me," Kuroda said. "I'm in that stage where I want to play for a team that I really love to play for, and hopefully when I retire, I'll have time with my family."
Kuroda made sure to say that he considers the Dodgers, for whom he pitched from 2008-11, as also being "a great organization." There were reports that Kuroda was considering returning to Japan, but the pitcher seemed to be amused by the suggestion and said that Japanese teams were not among the choices he was considering.
"Actually, I have never said that I want to play in Japan at this stage of my career," Kuroda said. "I don't know; maybe it's the Japanese media that's talking about it.
"What I have said is that if I'm going back, I'm going to play for my former team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. I haven't thought about that at this stage. Who knows? I may end my career at the end of this year."
That's a familiar refrain around the Yankees, where Mariano Rivera has spent the last two springs dropping hints and Andy Pettitte came to camp last year as a retired celebrity instructor. Kuroda said that he clicks with those older corners of the Yanks' roster.
"Especially with the fact that there are players like Andy and Mariano, who are older than me, and who I can look up to," Kuroda said. "I absorb a lot from them."
Pettitte and Kuroda would appear at first blush to be an unlikely pairing, especially since Pettitte is left-handed. But their bond seems to be formed more around their work ethic and serious nature about preparation.
"We help push each other, even though there's that language barrier there," Pettitte recently told The New York Daily News. "It's crazy. You know if a guy is cut out of the same mold as you are. We are."
Kuroda was 16-11 with a 3.32 ERA for New York last season, providing a definitive answer to those who wondered how he would transition to the American League East and pitching at Yankee Stadium.
Even CC Sabathia agreed that Kuroda was, for large stretches of the season, the Yanks' most effective pitcher. Kuroda said that there was a learning curve early in the season, but he used video to catch on.
"The primary thing was to study hitters that I haven't faced before," Kuroda said. "Early in the season, I wasn't able to figure out the type of hitters I was facing. That was difficult."
Kuroda finished with career highs in innings (219 1/3) and starts (33). Because of the heavy workload, pitching coach Larry Rothschild agreed to let him stop throwing his normal side sessions between starts late in the season.
The strategy helped in the playoffs, as Kuroda made strong starts against the Orioles and Tigers, and manager Joe Girardi said that he is not too worried about Kuroda wearing down or exhibiting a carryover effect.
"You're always a little bit concerned as they put a little bit of age on themselves, but right now he looks good to us," Girardi said.
Maybe that's because Kuroda has made some alterations to his training program, enlisting the help of Yankees strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea to keep his body fresher late into the season.
"As a starting pitcher, to stay in the rotation for the whole year is a tough thing, no matter where you play," Kuroda said. "[The program] has changed a lot from my Dodgers days. Right now I'm working a lot with Dana and communicating closely so we can get to where we want."
Girardi believes that if Kuroda can stay healthy, he can follow up on his successful 2012 and post similar results for the Yankees this year.
"He's been pretty consistent throughout his career," Girardi said. "This is a guy, it wasn't all of a sudden he put up one good year. He's been pretty good for a long time.
"I like his stuff, his work ethic. I think he really knows what he wants to do out there, which helps. He's not a guy that's going to fly by the seat of his pants. That's not who he is. That tells me he can do it again."