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Signed RHP Hisashi Iwakuma to a one-year deal worth $12 million, with club options for 2017 and 2018 [12/18]
“The Bear is back in Seattle.” And what a weird, winding road Hisashi Iwakuma took to get there. That his return owes more to the magic of Santa’s elves and tremulous Dodgers’ nerves than to strategy shouldn’t obscure how nimble Jerry Dipoto was in bringing the 34-year-old veteran back on a team-friendly deal. On Thursday morning, it was reported the Dodgers’ three-year, $45 million deal with Iwakuma had hit a snag because of shoulder concerns that emerged during his physical. By the time the Mariners were raising a glass of wassail at the club holiday party Thursday night, Iwakuma was back on a one-year deal that fortified a Mariners’ rotation lacking depth and consistency behind Felix Hernandez. Also of note was Mariners’ ownership reassuring financial flexibility, allowing Dipoto to reenter the market and snag Iwakuma in a manner eerily reminiscent of the circumstances that brought the Bear to Seattle from Oakland back in 2012. Iwakuma’s deal carries just $12 million in guaranteed money for 2016; the club has two more options for 2017 and 2018 that escalate to $14 million and $15 million if he pitches 162 innings in each year, with additional incentives for innings pitched, a complete no trade clause, and eight swank plane tickets between the US and Japan. If he hits all of his incentives, Iwakuma will end up making about $47.5 million; if he doesn’t, the Mariners owe less in guaranteed money than they would have if he’d accepted his qualifying offer.
Iwakuma shores up a rotation that looked dangerously thin despite Dipoto’s frenzied off-season thus far. Before Iwakuma’s return, the options behind Felix Hernandez were a combination of young, inconsistent, and marginally healthy, with mostly journeyman depth thrown in behind them for good measure. The team was in the unenviable position of deploying hope as a strategy, counting on a breakout years and better health from Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to ward off the specter of significant time from Mike Montgomery and Vidal Nuno. Now, the Mariners have depth that can theoretically compensate for questionable durability, with Iwakuma likely slotting in as the number two, and Walker, Paxton, Karns and Wade Miley bringing up the back end. Injury concerns linger, and despite the Mariners’ assurances they’re completely comfortable with Iwakuma’s health, it’s realistic to think his real contribution will be largely determined by his ability to stay on the field. As Craig Goldstein noted in his Transaction Analysis following the now ill-fated Dodgers deal, Iwakuma was 36th among starting pitchers by 2015 DRA in just 20 starts last season, but has seen his innings robbed by injury in greater and greater number since 2013.
Despite that, Iwakuma’s combination of command and movement make him exceedingly dangerous. His August no-hitter against the Orioles might be his most celebrated start of the year, but performances like his September 10-strikeout outing against the Royals are perhaps the most convincing proof of concept of what he can do when it is all working for him. He was the Mariners’ number one offseason priority, precisely the kind of high-floor, high-ceiling pitcher the team wanted. And despite everything, they were able to secure him after their moment had seemingly passed—having already spent all the talent and treasure they had at their disposal. Some Mariners fans will bemoan the fact that the play for Iwakuma only emerged after promising reliever Carson Smith was dealt away for Miley. But given that injury and poor play pressed Nuno into starting service 10 times last year, they might be better served recognizing an obvious imperative for more starters, and appreciating that one of those starters somehow ended up coming in the form of Iwakuma. It could all go horribly wrong. The Mariners will need multiple guys to have much better luck next season; long DL stints could come, and the rotation could find itself in largely the same shape they were in before this almost-Christmas miracle. Assuming it doesn’t, Iwakuma’s 2016 season will likely fall somewhere between the jubilation expressed by fans and his injury-riddled 2015 campaign. The Mariners showed impressive flexibility and quick determination to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity; traits that fans hope will become dominate in the Dipoto era. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and sometimes it is enough for a team to be a player’s final choice, even if they weren’t his first one. —Meg Rowley
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