Hisashi Iwakuma and the Evolving Market
The M’s are going nowhere in 2015, and they have a few veterans who are free agents at the end of the season. Normally, the M’s would be obvious sellers, and the contending teams would be sending plenty of advance scouts to watch the likes of JA Happ, Austin Jackson and Hisashi Iwakuma. A month or so ago, it seemed like this would be the perfect year for sellers, as the sheer number of teams in contention for the wild cards meant that they’d heavily outweigh the selling teams. But the market appears to have changed, at least for pitchers. Thanks mostly to the disappointing Padres and Reds, selling teams are all selling the same thing.
That’s all well and good, but what about the M’s? Hisashi Iwakuma’s coming off three straight good starts, and Dave correctly ID’d him as a potential deadline bargain. The problem is that age, health and 2015 performance will all conspire to sap his value, and in a crowded market for starting pitching, he may seem more like a lottery ticket than a quality, playoff-ready starter. Here’s a table of on-the-market starters. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but it’s a quick snapshot of the market for starting pitchers.
Judging by rest-of-season WAR projections (from ZiPS), Iwakuma is hanging around Dan Haren and Mike Leake, not Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or even Mat Latos. Now, those WAR projections don’t take Iwakuma’s consistently good BABIP, which has allowed him to post actual runs-allowed at lower rates than FIP would predict. That’s an important thumb on the scale for Iwakuma, but I’d guess the health concerns more than counteract that effect.
If you make some assumptions and squint a bit, you could almost envision a scenario that moves Iwakuma up the ladder a bit. Say the Tigers decide not to move Price, and say Cueto’s “no seriously, I’m perfectly fine” start before the deadline is a disaster (it’ll be at Coors field). Maybe move Hamels/Shields to another category. Maybe a team with a big park is interested in Iwakuma specifically and don’t want, say, Mike Leake. There’s definitely a case to be made that Iwakuma is flat out more talented than a number of the guys with superficially better WAR projections, and that any team worth its salt would rather have Iwakuma start for them than, I don’t know, Dan Haren or Mat Latos. He’d be a very good fit for some team, but there’s no way his value is in Cueto/Samardzija’s class, and Iwakuma’s odds of producing little to no WAR are probably much higher than the other guys, given the recent lat problems and recurring blister issues (which, to be fair, haven’t hampered him much).
The return Scott Kazmir netted the A’s isn’t bad – they got 2 Cal League prospects from the Astros, including one who might be a top 100 prospect next year (albeit on the back half of the list). Kazmir had a very slight edge in ROS WAR, is younger, has excellent numbers this year, and will be a free agent at the end of the year, same as Iwakuma. There’s probably no way that Iwakuma gets the same return. The M’s therefore have something of a painful choice – they can let Iwakuma play out the string in Seattle, meaning he could walk away next year and net them nothing. Or they can move him into a somewhat crowded market for an A-ball player that isn’t as highly touted as the one the A’s picked up. Neither option looks particularly appealing, but to me, and I realize this is somewhat anathema to the stereotypical sabermetric line, the M’s shouldn’t move him. This has been a painful year, and the M’s have earned the ire of a good portion of the fanbase. A lottery ticket is a better return than nothing, but it’s statistically close enough to nothing that it doesn’t provide a definitive answer to this problem.
The M’s should definitely listen to offers, and they should also listen to Iwakuma himself. I’m not really sure what he’d value – the opportunity to play for a winner, or the opportunity to stay in a community he knows and have a bit more control over his future. But the M’s should also think about M’s fans. The dream of a playoff run is over, but we’ve had quite a few seasons recently where coming to a game in late August/early September meant catching a start by Chris Seddon, Anthony Vasquez, or Blake Beavan. The M’s pitching depth is a bit better now thanks to Mike Montgomery, but with Paxton still hurting and Happ on the market as well, the possibility’s clearly there of another bitter ending to a soul-sucking season. Watching Iwakuma throw some meaningless innings against the A’s AAA team in September won’t make that a whole lot better, but getting a so-so return for Iwakuma would feel like another kick at a fanbase that’s already been traumatized. These are the metaphors and similes your 2015 Mariners attract. Happy Felix day, fellow masochist.