Keeping Iwakuma in perspective

 

When starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma declined the Seattle Mariners’ qualifying offer of one-year for $15.8 million, it became clear that the team would be forced to compete with other major league clubs to bring the starting pitcher back to Seattle. The fact that the right-hander declined the offer comes to no surprise to most. It’s been widely reported that Iwakuma is looking for a multi-year deal.

Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has made it clear that retaining Iwakuma is an offseason priority for his club and reportedly, the veteran hurler wants to stay in Seattle. Keeping “Kuma” in the Emerald City should be a lock, right? Maybe.

Much to the chagrin of some fans, Dipoto may be reluctant to offer Iwakuma the three-year deal that he’s reportedly seeking. Evidently, Seattle has offered a two-year contract with a vesting option for a third season.

Another hurdle in keeping Iwakuma is the fact that he may have several suitors other than the Mariners. Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press tweeted that the Detroit Tigers were interested in the 34-year-old. Some teams may view Kuma as a less expensive alternative to top-tier free agents like Zack Greinke, David Price, or Johnny Cueto. If a market builds for Iwakuma, the Mariners could refrain from overpaying or over-obligating for the all-star starter.

The advantage that Seattle has on their side is the qualifying offer. If Iwakuma signs with another team, Seattle would receive a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds of the 2016 amateur draft. Any team that signs Iwakuma would have to their surrender first-round pick for the 2016 draft unless the team holds one of the first 10 picks. Those teams would lose their second-round pick instead.

Unfortunately for the Mariners and their fans, the Tigers own the number-nine overall pick. So, they’re legitimate competition for Iwakuma. Here is the entire first round draft order, plus the compensatory picks for next year’s draft.

Losing Iwakuma would be a blow to the Mariners offseason plans, but it’s important to keep his value in perspective. Let’s look at his major league numbers.

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS CG SHO IP FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2012 31 SEA 9 5 3.16 30 16 0 0 125.1 4.35 1.277 8.4 1.2 3.1 7.3
2013 ★ 32 SEA 14 6 2.66 33 33 0 0 219.2 3.44 1.006 7.3 1.0 1.7 7.6
2014 33 SEA 15 9 3.52 28 28 0 0 179.0 3.25 1.050 8.4 1.0 1.1 7.7
2015 34 SEA 9 5 3.54 20 20 1 1 129.2 3.74 1.064 8.1 1.2 1.5 7.7
AL (4 yrs) 47 25 3.17 111 97 1 1 653.2 3.62 1.082 8.0 1.1 1.7 7.6
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/15/2015.

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The 2013 season was the veteran right-hander’s first season as a full-time starter and it was by far his best season with the Mariners. Iwakuma started in 33 games and pitched a career-high 219 innings on his way to finishing third in Cy Young award voting.

Unfortunately, the 2014 season didn’t get off to a good start when he reported to Spring Training with a strained tendon in his right middle finger. After missing the first month of the season, he pitched like his 2013 self until September when he struggled during his last five starts when the team was trying to make the postseason.

Perhaps, the lack of Cactus League prep affected Iwakuma during the home stretch of the season or perhaps the veteran merely had a “rough patch” as Prospect Insider’s Tyler Carmont described it at the time.

This past season, Iwakuma started poorly with three sub-par starts before going on the disabled list with a right lat strain after his April 20 start. However, he bounced back nicely after returning in in July by pitching 100 innings during the second half of the season and throwing a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles on August 12.

All-in-all, Iwakuma has been a valuable pitcher during his stay in Seattle and he’s demonstrated the ability to be a number-two starter. However, he’ll be 35-years-old next season and is coming off two injury-shortened seasons. A team that intends to contend can’t rely on him to be their number-two starter entering 2016. A more realistic projection for Iwakuma going forward would be as a number-four starter.

Sure, it’s possible that Iwakuma will have a great season next year. But, is it reasonable for a team to commit three years to an aging pitcher who’s only pitched over 200 innings once during his major league career and only twice in 11 seasons in Japan?

Naturally, fans would like to see one of their favorites to return, but that’s not how winners are built. If there were a younger player available to sign, shouldn’t the Mariners explore that option?

If the team is going to be forced to obligate three years to a pitcher, wouldn’t it make sense to obligate those years and dollars to a free agent like Mike Leake rather than Iwakuma? Here are the 27-year-old’s numbers since Iwakuma arrived in Seattle in 2012.

Year Age Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS CG SHO IP FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2012 24 CIN 8 9 .471 4.58 30 30 2 0 179.0 4.42 1.352 10.1 1.3 2.1 5.8
2013 25 CIN 14 7 .667 3.37 31 31 0 0 192.1 4.04 1.253 9.0 1.0 2.2 5.7
2014 26 CIN 11 13 .458 3.70 33 33 0 0 214.1 3.88 1.246 9.1 1.0 2.1 6.9
2015 27 TOT 11 10 .524 3.70 30 30 2 1 192.0 4.20 1.161 8.2 1.0 2.3 5.6
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/15/2015.
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The right-hander isn’t in the class of elite pitchers like Price or Greinke, but he’d be a nice fit as a replacement for Iwakuma. It’s true that Leake’s numbers aren’t at the same level of Iwakuma’s. However, his stuff should play well at Safeco Field and – thanks to his age – there’s a better chance that he’d be worth his asking price than Iwakuma, even if that means a five-year commitment.

Leake isn’t the only player who could help the Mariners fill out their rotation instead of committing three years to Iwakuma. Former Mariner Doug Fister – also a free agent – would also make more sense. Like Kuma, Fister has experienced availability issues in recent years and would likely cost a team less in dollars and years.

Bear in mind that signing Iwakuma to a third year would mean that the Mariners would paying a 38-year-old starting pitcher $13-15 million in 2018 when Nelson Cruz will be approaching the same age and earning similar money, plus a 35-year-old Robinson Cano will be banking $24 million.

Does paying approximately $52 million to three players – who are over the age of 35 – sound like a business model for sustainable success?

Retaining Hisashi Iwakuma for two years is an acceptable risk. Otherwise, there are other options – via free agency and trade – who would be more cost efficient than Iwakuma and just as effective or even better in 2016 and beyond.

 

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