The Iwakuma Files

Last week, I wrote a retrospective on Jerry Dipoto’s whirlwind first few months as the Seattle Mariners’ general manager. It’s been a time filled with moves, roster churn and intrigue. Yet the biggest curveball of Dipoto’s tenure has occurred since then, as Hisashi Iwakuma’s deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers broke down due to concerns about his physical, which allowed the Mariners to catch Iwakuma on the rebound.

The M’s major offseason moves had apparently been wrapped up, for better or worse, only for this early Christmas present to fall into the team’s lap. (Ironically, the move was announced at the club’s holiday party.) Many lessons can be learned from this turn of events. One is a better understanding of the roles of the player physical and the management of the team salary budget within the business of player procurement. A more subtle, and enlightening takeaway, is how some simple baseball axioms — having defined principles, knowing and scouting your own players better than anyone else’s and letting the game come to you — enabled the Mariners to make their own good fortune.

Most American baseball fans have only been aware of Iwakuma for a few seasons. He pitched his first game in Seattle in 2012, when he was 31 years old. By that point, Iwakuma was already a veteran of parts of 11 major league seasons — 1541 innings overall — in Japan. He was one of the Japanese Pacific League’s foremost starters for much of that span, posting a 107-69 record and an 3.25 ERA, with 1175 strikeouts and 342 walks.

Even back then, Iwakuma was susceptible to injury. He was limited to 128.2 combined innings in 2006 and  2007, due to a succession of injuries that ranged from shoulder tenderness to an oblique strain to arthroscopic elbow surgery.

Before arriving in Seattle in 2012, Iwakuma had made a previous attempt to jump to the United States. After the 2010 season, he was posted by his Japanese club, and Oakland won the right to negotiate with him. The A’s bid $19.1 million, but Oakland and Iwakuma’s representatives were unable to come to a contractual agreement. While simple dollars and cents were cited as the main reason for the impasse, medical concerns were also rumored to be involved.

I was a member of the Mariners front office when we signed Iwakuma as a true Japanese League free agent prior to the 2012 season, with no posting fee required. We “let it come to us” in that case as well, signing the right-hander to a one-year, $1.5 million deal that also included $3.4 million in incentives. We tempered our expectations, but it was a classic low-risk, moderate-to-high reward transaction. Sure, the medical wasn’t clean, but given our modest level of investment, we were in.

Then spring training started. Iwakuma’s first couple of bullpens were poor, to be kind. It was determined that his shoulder was weak, and was unlikely to hold up under the more rigorous (fewer days rest) workload of our major leagues. Our medical staff came up with a tailored workout plan for Iwakuma, who wouldn’t even pitch to hitters for a couple weeks thereafter. His spring training results were mixed, but on the rare occasions when his delivery was in sync and he was able to get on top of the baseball and finish his pitches, some special things happened.

We began the regular season with a dead spot on the roster as Iwakuma was deemed healthy enough, but unready to pitch. He was the last member of an Opening Day roster to get into a game, coming on to mop up a 7-3 loss in game 15, on April 20. Iwakuma’s chances came more often after that, and so did success. He made his first start on July 2. He struck out 13 Toronto Blue Jays in his fifth start, on July 30. The Mariners had taken the long view, and suddenly we had a low-cost, high-performance starting pitcher on our hands.

One of my last official acts as a Mariner was to suggest the exact terms of the extension offer that Iwakuma eventually accepted, a two-year, $13 million guaranteed deal that also included a $7 million option for 2015. It’s a contract that turned out to be a great one from the club’s perspective.

The quality of Iwakuma’s major league work has always been exceptional, though the quantity has not, thanks to continuing injury concerns. A strained finger tendon cost him some starts in 2014, and a lat strain cut into his 2015 workload. When healthy, though, Iwakuma has consistently been good for six to seven strong innings, impeccable control and adequate contact-management skills that play up thanks to Safeco Field’s spacious dimensions.

As the 2015 season drew to a close, it appeared the days of the M’s controlling Iwakuma’s right at a bargain price were about to come to an end. My personal thoughts seemed to coincide with the consensus: he’d get about $15 million per year, and the team that stepped up and guaranteed a third year would clinch his services. The Dodgers did just that, forcing the Mariners to make a very difficult call, one that will come to define Jerry Dipoto’s first offseason.

Seattle clearly liked Iwakuma, but it drew the line at guaranteeing that third year. It would have been very easy to cave and overpay, but the club stuck to its guns, knowing his medical history. The team sought alternate plans to enhance its rotation. The Mariners got creative, while taking some risk, moving an elite reliever in Carson Smith that brought them the serviceable Wade Miley and his more-than-serviceable contract. Presto. They had their Iwakuma replacement, at a sub-market rate.

They also sought some salary relief, moving Mark Trumbo and his upcoming $9 million arbitration pay day to the Baltimore Orioles for backup catcher Steve Clevenger. That move cleared first base for Adam Lind, a better, slightly less compensated player. If something slipped in the market, perhaps then Seattle could pounce with this slight additional financial flexibility, along with the blessing of the ownership group.

And then Iwakuma’s medical became a concern in Los Angeles. All 30 clubs have a group of eminently capable medical teams with a very clear mission. This mission is not to tell baseball operations officials whom to sign or not sign. Instead, the mission is to assign a player’s degrees of medical risk — from established, six-figure free agents to players eligible for the amateur draft. It’s then up to the baseball executives to recommend to ownership (in cases of pricer free agents) the risks to accept and the risks to forego.

Physicals are not black-and-white, pass-fail propositions. There’s a fine line between being “hurt” and “injured,” and an MRI can find damage in just about any shoulder or elbow. If evaluated by all 30 clubs, Hisashi Iwakuma would not have a totally clean physical from any of them. The same goes for Chris Young. It all comes down to the injury risk, in conjunction with the anticipated player production and dollar investment. The medical team, for instance, might assign a numerical and/or color grade to each player evaluated. A “red light” means stay away, and it’s usually heeded by baseball executives.

The Los Angeles doctors likely saw substantial risks in Iwakuma’s physical, and Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and the rest of the team were forced to take a step back and evaluate these concerns in the context of a three-year, $45 million investment. They made their decision and likely tried to renegotiate the deal before eventually walking away.

This is where the M’s deserve kudos for creatively addressing their rotation in a cost-effective manner quickly after Iwakuma’s departure. The team obtained some payroll flexibility while it simultaneously addressed a lower-tier need in the Trumbo/Clevenger deal and also quickly pounced on Iwakuma, relying on their superior knowledge of their own player while crafting a deal that met the needs of both the team and the player. Iwakuma chose to stay with the organization and medical group with whom he established a comfort zone. If he stays healthy, Iwakuma still gets $40 million over three years. If he continues to pitch well in limited doses, the club can either walk away and let him re-enter the market, or re-up him for $10 million per season in 2017 and 2018. That’s a win-win.

Seattle let the game come to them, and were rewarded handsomely. Compare this to the previous management regime, which made its big, budget-busting move early last summer, adding salary by dealing Yoervis Medina for a needed catcher in Welington Castillo. At then the team added more salary by moving said catcher and two prospects for Trumbo.

It sounds like a cliché: let the game come to you. But it’s a cliché  that is often ignored in today’s game. On the field, teams issue intentional walks, which are often followed by unintentional walks, and then, big innings. A relief pitcher enters a game and walks his first batter, and the next hitter immediately gives away an out with a bunt on the first pitch. Teams needlessly deplete bullpens, going left-right-left-right in one inning, sacrificing their flexibility for that night’s game and sometimes the next game. Letting it come to you conserves assets and can win you games, and in this case, offseasons.

Will this Iwakuma move be a pivotal one in the 2016 pennant race? Despite its clear importance, chances are that on its own it will not. Still, the Seattle Mariners now are able to slide all of their starters behind Felix Hernandez down a notch. If Taijuan Walker doesn’t take the next step, or Nate Karns can’t take a regular turn, or if James Paxton can’t stay healthy, Seattle can now absorb one more of those negative events than it previously could. On the other hand, if Walker’s a true No. 2, and Karns and/or Paxton take the next step, the addition of Iwakuma gives the Mariners a rotation that could work in October.

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8 years ago

It’s always interesting to see these “insider” type articles. Appreciate the writing and history here.

My one squabble is this … the article praises the process used by the M’s to obtain Iwakuma. However, was it really the process that enabled this signing?

What if the medicals weren’t really that bad? What if the Dodgers are just really gun shy? The fact that the deal fell through was basically just dumb luck. Other teams would have gone through with the original contract despite a few minor red flags. I don’t see how the M’s process could have influenced the Dodger’s decision when it comes to physicals.

What if the medicals were really bad? What if the Dodgers are right and nobody should be paying the guy $15M to pitch for them next year? Sure, the M’s got someone they thought they wanted. But if the shoulder or elbow is shot they still burn through $15M unnecessarily. Yes, it’s only one guaranteed year but that is money the team could have theoretically put somewhere else.

Again, just a minor squabble. I really did enjoy this article.

8 years ago
Reply to  bjsguess

I think you’re conflating the ‘process’ and the outcome of an individual set of circumstances. Yes, Blengino praises the process, which in this individual set of circumstances led to this specific outcome. He isn’t claiming that the process the M’s followed would invariably lead to this outcome (getting to sign Kuma to this deal) – that is dependent on variables they can’t fully control. Neither does Blengino say that this process has, in this case, led to a positive outcome down the road (the new deal for Kuma could still be a bust if he pitches terribly or is shelved immediately and indefinitely).

However, it might be inferred that by following this process, a team would find some positive individual outcomes, through the combination of patience, careful valuation of risk and commitment, and opportunism. I am not fully attempting to define the process, nor do I think Blengino did, nor do I necessarily agree with it; I’m just trying to illuminate the difference in your comment between the process and the outcome.

8 years ago
Reply to  VottomanEmpire

Fair comment. Appreciate the perspective.

Nathaniel Dawson
8 years ago
Reply to  bjsguess

With any contract, you take a risk. A team can’t go out and sign good talent without taking risks. That’s what Tony was alluding to when he said “crafting a deal that met the needs of both the team and the player”. Sure, they may end up getting little out of Iwakuma (the actual amount in that case would be 12 million), but they may end up getting a well above average starter at a bargain price. You are taking a risk with every player you sign (or trade for), and Iwakuma’s contract is structured in such a way that it minimizes the team risk if something goes awry, while providing the payday he could’ve gotten from the Dodgers if he’s productive (as much as 47.5 million over those three years).