Welcome Back, Kuma
I suppose it’s a good reminder: most deals are contingent on a physical. We all expect that to be a formality, but they’re not, and when you’re talking about an older pitcher with a fairly extensive injury history, it’s even less of one. Yesterday, word came down that Hisashi Iwakuma, who’d just agreed to a three-year deal with the Dodgers, had failed his physical. Evidently, it didn’t take Iwakuma and the M’s long to come to an alternative arrangement, as Jerry Dipoto sprung this surprise at the M’s holiday party:
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) December 18, 2015
A few weeks after M’s fans were learning to accept a Kuma-less rotation, he was back – this time on a one year deal with two vesting options. That is, Iwakuma’s minimum guaranteed money drops from the $45m the Dodgers offered (and then rescinded after seeing some X-rays), to $12m for 2016. However, the total dollar value could exceed $45m if Kuma’s healthy. This is about as close to a win-win as you could imagine – the M’s were wary of committing tens of millions if Iwakuma suddenly imploded, and now they don’t have to. On the other hand, the story isn’t just that Iwakuma stood to make $45m, and now can’t. There’s no doubt that Iwakuma and his agent would prefer the Dodger contract, but whatever medical issues spooked the Dodgers are presumably real and have an impact on his market value, or at least on the share of the risk teams are willing to shoulder. Still, he can get to that total compensation level if he’s healthy, which would be great for him and a bargain for the M’s.
A few thoughts:
1: The low initial outlay – the $12m guarantee- probably made this possible, but here’s to ownership for stepping up and actually making room in the budget when a ridiculous bargain fell into their laps. It’s easy to say, “of COURSE they expanded their budget – they already said they would pay MORE in 2016 before Kuma agreed with LA.” But of course, the M’s have made other decisions since then, and you can imagine a scenario where owners aren’t willing to exceed a budget cap they helped set. You and I might agree that such a hard-and-fast rule is foolish, and needlessly restrictive, but I bet there are some teams that wouldn’t or couldn’t.
2: Ah, but what about the MRI that enabled this? Isn’t it scary? A team had a deal sewn up, took a look at some medical records, tried to renegotiate the deal for what must’ve been 15-30 solid minutes, and then walked away. What was on the MRI? A stapler, a couple of ball bearings and a small WD-40 reservoir? Look: I take it for granted that Iwakuma’s shoulder looks awful the closer doctors look at it. Not just, “there’s fraying here and here,” but, “I assume this X-ray belongs to an 80-year old with serious mobility issues.” There has to be something there that caused Iwakuma to miss time in Japan, and it has to be something so bad that the OAKLAND A’S walked away from the opportunity to negotiate a below-market deal with him in 2011. The M’s signed him in January 2012 because he cost the princely sum of $1.5m. The risk had to be so minimal that arm-spiders or the complete absence of a labrum no longer fazed them.
The risk THIS time is of course much higher, but the M’s are operating with a hell of a lot more information. They have the benefit of comparing medical records from 2012 to those from each year, and yes, while Iwakuma’s given them a REASON to keep assessing his arm’s overall health, his shoulder and arm have generally held up. The M’s know much more than the A’s in 2011 or the Dodgers in 2015 how Iwakuma’s shoulder’s changed over time, and they’ve seen what his arm is capable of, irrespective of how it looks in x-rays. That’s a big, and very real, advantage. Also: it will never not be funny that the Athletics couldn’t sign him and the M’s got him for $1.5m. Never. After all of the health problems this organization’s pitchers suffered, we get to have one, small thing we can blow out of proportion and laugh about.
3: This would seem to put the M’s out on the remaining free agent pitchers, from Scott Kazmir to another big Japanese star, Kenta Maeda. We haven’t talked as much about Maeda, who likely was never in the M’s plans – not only would the posting fee cost money the M’s say they don’t want to spend (yes, yes, “separate budgets” or whatever, but that’s never made a ton of sense), but the M’s and Dipoto have shied away from the international market in recent years. The M’s don’t appear to have been in on Masahiro Tanaka, and didn’t make a big push for some of the recent Cuban signings. The Angels under Dipoto were much the same – after years as big players in the DR, they backed away from the international market around the same time the M’s did, amid scandals and recriminations (just like the M’s). Dipoto made one fairly large Cuban signing, but Roberto Baldoquin had an absolutely awful year in the Cal League, which isn’t the kind of experience that leads you to do a big re-think on the value of the international free agent market.
Maeda, 27, has been posted by his club, the Hiroshima Carp. Any MLB club that wants to negotiate with Maeda must agree to a $20m posting fee – multiple teams will qualify, and then one will ultimately sign a deal and thus pay the posting fee to the Carp. In recent years, Maeda’s put up a lovely ERA, but he’s clearly a few steps behind the dominant stars Yu Darvish and Tanaka. His ERA was better than Kuma’s, but then Kuma’s last few years in Japan were marred by injury, and you get into the changing baseball itself around that time – scoring in Japan varied wildly in those years.* Maeda’s fastball’s a tick above Kuma’s at 90-91, and he’s got a sweeping slider at 80-81, and a slow curve at 70-71. Kuma has those three pitches, but if that was all he had, he’d never have made the M’s roster. Kuma’s splitter is a legitimate plus pitch in the big leagues, and it’s the key to his success. Maeda doesn’t throw one, but he does have a change-up with good, almost splitter-like drop. Indeed, by pitch fx, Maeda’s change and Kuma’s split are fairly close in release point and movement. That’s a good sign for Maeda, but my guess is that he won’t make the kind of splash Iwakuma has.
For one, his change is delivered slower, and that’s an issue. As Harry Pavlidis found, the closer in speed a change is to the fastball, the more grounders it gets. That’s part of what makes Kuma so special, as I talked about before. The pitch is tough to lay off of, and produces bad results when hitters swing. Maeda has thrown his change less, and it’s slower. That’s not the kiss of death or anything, and the movement similarities to Kuma’s split are really encouraging, but not only will Maeda need to adjust to the new league and new usage pattern (every 5 days instead of every week), he may need to tweak his change and slider. Maybe he can! But at this point, the aging Kuma with his scary medical history feels like not only a cheaper option, but one with equivalent risk AND a higher potential reward.
4: A lot of the (happy) discussion about this surprising deal has turned on the M’s newfound rotation depth. They’ve got Felix/Kuma/Miley/Walker locked in as 1-4 starters, and then Nate Karns, James Paxton, Mike Montgomery would fight for the 5th spot (and Vidal Nuno and Anthony Bass have big league starting experience, too). That’s important, no doubt, but it also doesn’t change things TOO much. This doesn’t mean you try harder to move James Paxton, as there are questions in the rotation that depth is going to be critical. But it makes Mike Montgomery something of the odd man out: before, you might stash him in the bullpen. After the Cishek deal and with another bullpen spot likely going to the loser of the Karns/Paxton 5th-starter competition, Montgomery gets harder and harder to keep on the 25 man roster. As he’s out of options, they can’t send him down, and his utility as a LOOGY is minimal, considering he’s got strong reverse platoon splits thanks to his big change-up. Let’s be clear: the decision to pick up Kuma is a great one, and if it “costs” them Montgomery, so be it. But it’s odd the way the M’s staff looks now that Montgomery may be in exactly the position Erasmo Ramirez was last spring: pitching for a job somewhere else.
The projections at Fangraphs love the M’s rotation: the positional depth charts show the M’s rotation tied for 3rd best in the AL, behind Cleveland and New York’s (and tied with Boston’s). That’s critical, because the M’s still have some holes. Their position players may beat their WAR projections (looking at you, Nelson Cruz), but they’re still a ways back of their rivals: their group ranks 13th in baseball in 6th in the AL, and rank behind Houston and Anaheim in the AL West. The bullpen is projected to be the real problem, tied with Detroit’s as the AL’s worst unit at 1.8 WAR. Obviously, Dipoto’s “buy low” approach disagrees with the projections’ methodology, but I think most M’s fans are a bit nervous of the new, Carson Smith-less bullpen. That’s why it’s so critical that the M’s starters perform. Not only does the rotation become a strength that counters other clubs’ positional advantages, but a great rotation can consume more innings, leaving less for the marginal arms in the pen. The fewer 5th and 6th innings the M’s pen needs to work, the better, and with adequate depth, it’s easier to enable that to happen, even with guys like Paxton and Karns who don’t have 200 IP seasons in their history.
* In 2010, Central League teams scored 4.3 runs per game. That collapsed to 3.15 a year later. It was 4.2 in 2014, but 3.4 in 2015. The scoring was in part due to a change in the baseball itself, and the circumstances surrounding the “juiced ball”‘s release cost the commissioner his job.