M’s Close To Deal With Hisashi Iwakuma
Over the last week or so, various reports have been circling that the Mariners were closing in on a deal with Japanese RHP Hisashi Iwakuma. Today, we get the best confirmation of those reports, in the form of a report from Sponichi (in Japanese, but helpfully translated by Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker) where Iwakuma is quoted as saying:
“We’ve received terms from a number of clubs, but considering where I’m needed and an environment my family can live in, at present we’re closest to a contract with the Mariners,” Iwakuma said.
Generally, you don’t say something like this publicly unless you’re pretty darn close to a deal with the team, so we can comfortably guess that the two are pretty far along in negotiations. It doesn’t appear to be a done deal, but it also seems fairly likely that the M’s are going to end up with Iwakuma.
We’ve talked about the team’s need for another starting pitcher (or two) all off-season, and Iwakuma checks most of the boxes of things the team was looking for – a strike-throwing innings eater who could fill in at the back of the rotation without costing an arm and a leg. A year ago, Iwakuma seemed to be potentially a lot more than that, as the A’s bid $19 million to win his rights via the posting process, but they never came to terms with him on a contract, he stayed in Japan, and he took a step back in scout’s eyes, mostly related to a drop in velocity. His surface numbers still look good, but it’s important to keep in mind that Japan played with a new ball in 2011, and offense declined precipitously, so his performance relative to league average wasn’t as good as it had been in prior years.
As a guy who sits in the high-80s and didn’t miss a lot of bats in Japan, he profiles as a back-end starter, but there’s a lot of uncertainty with pitchers coming over from Japan. Hiroki Kuroda wasn’t hyped as anything particularly special and also posted pedestrian strikeout rates in Japan, but he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball since arriving in the U.S. While people focus on the high profile failures like Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu, the fact is that Japanese pitchers have performed pretty well in MLB, and there’s certainly a chance that Iwakuma performs better than his profile might suggest. There’s also the chance that his velocity keeps deteriorating and he gets lit up like a Christmas tree. There’s just a lot of variance here, and trying to figure out exactly what to expect isn’t easy.
Still, it sounds like he’s not going to be overly expensive and probably isn’t going to require more than a two year commitment, as Japanese players often give the M’s a bit of a discount due to the positive attributes it holds in terms of community and travel. I don’t really know exactly what to expect from Iwakuma, but getting a potentially solid starting pitcher at what is probably not a super high cost can’t be considered a bad thing.