Mariners Add Some Cheap Upside With Iwakuma

The Mariners are one of the better run-prevention teams in baseball, and yesterday they added to a pitching staff that allowed the fourth fewest runs (675) in the American League last year by agreeing to a one-year contract with Hisashi Iwakuma. The 30-year-old right-hander will earn just a $1.5 million base salary in 2012, with another $3.4 million available in incentives tied to starts and innings pitched.

This deal comes one year after the Athletics won Iwakuma’s negotiating rights with a $19.1 million bid through the posting process, though the two sides failed to reach an agreement and the righty ended up back in Japan before becoming an international free agent this winter. Oakland was thinking something along the lines of $3-5 million per year while Iwakuma was said to be seeking Barry Zito money. The two sides never got close, so he returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles on a one-year, $3.6 million contract.

Unfortunately for Iwakuma, his stock took a hit in 2011. He missed part of the season with a shoulder injury, which caused his fastball velocity to dip from its usual 88-92 down into the 84-86 range. Patrick Newman has a velocity chart over at NPB Tracker. The fastball climbed back into the upper-80’s by the end of the season, alleviating some concerns. Iwakuma has a bit of a kitchen sink approach, pitching backwards and throwing offspeed stuff in pretty much any count. His slider and forkball are ahead of his curveball and changeup. Like most Asian pitchers, he adds a bit of deception to his delivery with a hesitation. Here’s a video of him pitching in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, with the forkball on full display.

Iwakuma is not Yu Darvish, at least not when it comes to missing bats and racking up strikeouts. His best single-season strikeout rate over the last four years is 7.1 K/9 and 20.2 K% way back in 2008, and over the last three seasons it’s a 6.7 K/9 and 18.2 K%. Iwakuma has limited walks though (1.8 BB/9 and 4.9 BB% last three years), and as Patrick explained last offseason, he gets a good amount of ground balls and generally keeps the ball in the park (0.7 HR/9 last three years). Safeco Field will help him out a bit in that regard, but batters here are more capable of the long ball than the guys Iwakuma is accustomed to facing in Japan. Patrick pegged his upside “in the mid-rotation starter range” last winter, but we probably have to adjust down a bit given his most recent injury*.

* It’s worth noting that his health problems extend further back than just 2011; shoulder woes limited him to just 128.2 IP from 2006-2007, and he also had an elbow procedure late in 2007.

As far as the Mariners are concerned, the deal is basically nothing but upside. A $1.5 million base salary is a pittance, less than what Yuniesky Betancourt and Fernando Rodney signed for this offseason. The bonuses don’t kick in until he makes 20 starts or throws 140 IP according to Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times, which gives the team more than enough time to evaluate his performance and decide whether or not to keep him around all year. If he pitches poorly, they’ll cut him. Simple as that.

I don’t want to go too overboard with the upside because Iwakuma is still a soon-to-be 31-year-old righty with a fringy fastball — plus there’s a decent chance he’ll be a sub-6.0 K/9 guy — but there’s very little risk as far as Seattle is concerned. All he needs to give the Mariners is about half-a-win to be worth the base salary, though a two or three-win season isn’t completely out of question with a favorable home park and a strong defense behind him. The M’s did well to scoop up a back of the rotation candidate for so cheap when comparable hurlers are getting two guaranteed years and upwards of $6 million per season on the open market.

Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

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10 years ago

I understand the argument that there is little risk from a financial standpoint. What about from a results standpoint? The Mariners will need every win they can get to have any sort of meaningful season. What if giving Iwakuma enough innings to find out what he’s got costs the Mariners several wins? Do you think this is worth considering?

My feeling is that the Mariners are not close to winning the division or a wild card and can afford to tinker. I don’t think this would be the same of a team like the Yankees or Redsox who will be competing all season for playoff spots. I think real contenders have to give innings to safer bets when they can, regardless of the finances.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jason

No one in Seattle thinks this team can contend in 2012, and it’s unlikely that the M’s will miss out on several CGs from Charlie Furbush by running Iwakuma out there every fifth day.

And what of last year’s Garcia, Colon contracts from the Yanks? I wouldn’t call those two bets any safer than Iwakuma is right now, especially at $1.5M.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

I think the Garcia and Colon contracts really are different. Freddy Garcia had a long track record and he was a pretty safe bet to give the Yankees innings with a chance to win given the offense he would be pitching behind. Colon, on the other hand, was much more difficult to project. But he was purely an insurance policy. He would never have seen any starts or innings had there not been an injury to Phil Hughes. This is evidenced by the fact that he was the odd man out of the rotation at the beginning of the season despite the fact that he out pitched all the other “contenders” for the back of the rotation in spring training. Colon was signed to a non-guaranteed minor league contract. He wouldn’t have even made the roster if he wasn’t sitting in the mid-90’s in spring training.

Dwight S.
10 years ago
Reply to  Jason

I agree with the first poster on this. As a Tigers fan I’ll take Brad Penny for example, last year he was worth 3.8 Million dollars according to this site(the tigers only paid him 3) so the Tigers maid almost a million dollars off him according to the numbers on here. But the problem is I don’t think it’s fair to compare to what the numbers are on here, I think you should compare to what is available or what that particular team has.

Lets use the Tigers and Brad Penny of last year for example again. Ok according to fangraphs the signing of Penny was a good move by the Tigers. But lets say that the Tigers top prospect Jacob Turner is more than ready to start in the majors but he can’t because of Penny. Then what? Then he rots in the minors because of an inferior pitcher. So even though Penny maybe worth what you are paying him, the fact that he is holding back a superior pitcher eliminates that.

It’s the same way with this signing. Admittedly I know nothing about the M’s farm system. But what if they have a bunch of stud pitching prospects ready to go but this signing holds them back? then what? Will you justify it jsut because they made their moneys worth, even though the guy that he blocked would’ve made even more?

Again I’ll use the Penny example. According to Fangraphs Penny made his money and it was a good signing, but by signing him two superior pitchers(Turner and Smyly) didn’t pitch for the Tigers. So how good of signing was it? If they didn’t sign Penny there is a good chance that one of those 2 would’ve produced even more than Penny did.

wily momember
10 years ago
Reply to  Dwight S.

nice post but i wish you had used brad penny as an example at least once

10 years ago
Reply to  Dwight S.

There’s some positive to that as well. Any prospect Iwakuma ‘holds back’ for a season, also holds back said prospect’s arbitration date, free-agency, etc.