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January 6, 2012

Transaction Analysis

See You in Seattle

by R.J. Anderson

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SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed RHP Hisashi Iwakuma to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million guaranteed. [1/5]
Signed SS-L Munenori Kawasaki to a minor-league deal. [1/4]

Because of Seattle’s Japanese-based ownership and history in Japanese free-agent signings, the Mariners are the favorite whenever a player prepares to make the leap stateside. The Mariners even appeared, albeit briefly, in rumors during the Yu Darvish bidding process. The days of Kenji Johjima and Kazuhiro Sasaki are in the past, but the Mariners helped solidify their position, deservedly or imagined, as the Yankees of the Japanese free-agent market by inking two free agents from Nippon Professional Baseball earlier this week. 

Iwakuma made news last offseason after botched negotiations with the Athletics. Oakland won the rights to negotiate with Iwakuma with a bid of more than $19 million, but talks petered in the early stages and turned nasty late. Iwakuma’s then-agent went as far as accusing the Athletics of disrespecting his client after offering a four-year deal worth $15.25 million as opposed to a contract with a desired $12 million annual average. As such, Iwakuma returned to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and pitched one more season before reaching free agency.

An extra season in Japan did Iwakuma no favors. He missed time due to a shoulder injury and lost mileage on his fastball. This resulted in a one-year deal with the Mariners that can reach a hair less than $5 million if incentives for innings pitched and games started are reached. In a fitting twist, Iwakuma agreed to his deal on the same day that the Yankees and shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima announced that they failed to reach a pact.

Pitchers like Freddy Garcia, Bruce Chen, and Chris Capuano received similar payouts earlier this offseason to be back-end starters, and Iwakuma fits into the class. Although Iwakuma’s career statistics—notably a 2.67 earned run average and 3.87 strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2007—suggest he could be a front-of-the-rotation starter, his stuff earns more conservative praise. Mike Fast looked at Iwakuma’s PITCHf/x data from the 2009 World Baseball Classic in November 2010, and voiced concerns about his stuff’s ability to translate to the majors:

Iwakuma's splitter is the only pitch that strikes me as an above-average major league pitch.  His other pitches seem passable, but I'm somewhat skeptical whether they will play against major-league hitters.

Fast’s analysis came when Iwakuma’s fastball sat in the low 90s, and could be treated as outdated when Iwakuma’s more recent velocity readings are examined. Complicating the analysis is Iwakuma’s willingness to pitch backward and previous assertions that he owns stellar fastball command. Another compounding variable is the righty’s deceptive delivery. From the windup, Iwakuma employs a stutter move with his lift leg, holding it before loading the ball for delivery. When Iwakuma is forced to the stretch, the hesitation move is dumped in favor of a snappy leg kick. Expect batters to have issues timing the northpaw early on.

Iwakuma will turn 31 early next season, making him the graybeard in a rotation that features two pitchers yet to turn 23 (Michael Pineda and Blake Beavan), and another two younger than 30 (Felix Hernandez 25; Jason Vargas 28). Unlike those aforementioned free-agent starting pitcher contracts, Iwakuma’s deal carries some risk minimization in that his base salary is $1.5 million. Should the shoulder injury pop up again, or if his stuff fails to play up in the majors, the Mariners could cut bait without accepting a $5 million sunk cost.

Kawasaki will join Iwakuma in Mariners camp, but figures to be a less impactful signing. Seattle’s interest in Kawasaki dates back through at least June, when Seattle scout Yasushi Yamamoto praised the shortstop. According to a translation from NPB Tracker, Yamamoto said he gave Kawasaki a higher grade in baserunning and fielding than Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Yamamoto added that he thinks Kawasaki can be an everyday player should he bat .250 in the major leagues.

Not to question Yamamoto’s assertion, but if true, Kawasaki’s secondary skills are considerable. Kawasaki hit .267/.310/.327 during the 2011 season and has hit .295/.344/.377 since 2007. Nishioka, for comparison, hit .304/.379/.443 over the same time span, yet batted .226/.278/.249 in his first exposure to the major leagues. Without much in the way of walks and power, Kawasaki’s line is dependent on his batting average, and in that sense, Yamamoto’s comments are valid in at least one sense: Kawasaki is going to have to hit for average to be tolerable at the plate.

Luckily, the Mariners do not need Kawasaki to become an everyday player. They have Dustin Ackley at second base and Brendan Ryan at shortstop. Third base is a question mark, but expect Kyle Seager and/or Alex Liddi to get first dibs there. Kawasaki could be the utility infielder, and even then, he would have to displace Chone Figgins and his contract.

If nothing else, Kawasaki’s presence should please Ichiro; the pair are off-season workout buddies. Unless, that is, Ichiro is of the Lincoln mindset.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Hisashi Iwakuma

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