Hisashi Iwakuma and the Evolving Market

marc w · July 24, 2015 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Years ROS WAR Age
David Price 0.5 2 30
Jeff Samardzija 0.5 1.6 30
Johnny Cueto 0.5 1.6 29
Cole Hamels 4.5 1.6 31
James Shields 3.5 1.4 34
Mat Latos 0.5 1 28
Yovanni Gallardo 0.5 0.9 29
Andrew Cashner 1.5 0.9 29
Mike Leake 0.5 0.8 28
Hisashi Iwakuma 0.5 0.8 34
Mike Fiers 4.5 0.8 30
Dan Haren 0.5 0.7 35
JA Happ 0.5 0.7 33
Ian Kennedy 0.5 0.6 30

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.


6 Responses to “Hisashi Iwakuma and the Evolving Market”

  1. jak924 on July 24th, 2015 5:53 pm

    If nothing else, Jack Z. Needs to acquire a catcher–any catcher–to enable the M’s to send Zunino to AAA. Because of the GM’s incompetance, Zunino’s struggles are becoming a baseball joke. He should have been optioned long ago. Jack Z. should be ashamed of himself.

  2. wabbles on July 24th, 2015 5:58 pm

    Ugh. I’ve started off the last several seasons wanting to be a complete baseball nerd. In previous years, life intervened. In the past few years I just haven’t had the enthusiasm for it given the M’s performance. I’m glad to see that reinforced. I’ve followed the M’s since 1977 (off and on) but I just don’t find myself anxious to tune into M’s games lately. ‘sigh’ Go Seahawks!

  3. LongDistance on July 24th, 2015 11:47 pm

    An Iwakuma move, which carries its own logic, would be an open admission the season’s over. Obviously. But it would also be an open admission that the Jack Z. M’s have mission failed in 2015, and it’s back to rebuild mode. Think Jack’ll do that? It would be tantamount to firing himself.

  4. maqman on July 25th, 2015 5:12 am

    Whatever they do with Kuma probably wont affect what happens to GMZ. They either will want to give him another year at the controls or find someone better. That’s going to be down to Lincoln and the owner’s preference and how much heat they feel from fans and other stakeholders. I follow our farm fairly closely and it is noticeably understocked. If they like Kuma enough to resign him at market price they can do that after the season if he is traded. He might not bring as strong a package as Kazmir did for the A’s but they will get some talent to add to our depleted farm. This will have value for the next GM if they move on from GMZ, which is this fan’s preference. My fear is that they do something dumb to try and pump some life into this season’s corpse.

  5. Westside guy on July 25th, 2015 1:43 pm

    I’m with jak924, but I can’t see it happening with Z at the helm. He can’t admit the season is over because he’s hobbled the franchise’s longer term health on the promise of competing now.

    But, practically speaking, the season is over whether Z wants to make that admission or not.

    The only reason I can think of why he’s still in charge is because the ownership really doesn’t have much baseball acumen (which isn’t exactly news). Unfortunately that may mean Jack can sell them on “just one more year” – so I’m prepared mentally for more major league suckage and a bare farm system.

  6. coreyjro on July 26th, 2015 11:49 am

    Isn’t making Kuma the qualifying offer still a possibility? I’d think a 2016 end of round 1 pick is better than what we would get in the trade market right now. I don’t think you trade him when his value is an all-time low.

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