Speculating an Iwakuma extension

The Seattle Mariners did well to attain some value for assets on expiring contracts, as well as Dustin Ackley, prior to Friday’s trade deadline. Both Mark Lowe and J.A. Happ were set to hit free agency at season’s end. The list of pending free agents also includes Fernando Rodney and Austin Jackson, but with having a rather terrible season and the other not garnering much interest, hanging on to the pair is understandable.

One more name is on that list, and curiously never seemed to be all that much available: Hisashi Iwakuma.

On Sunday, we received some form of clarity as to why Kuma wasn’t moved or even made available, via Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe:

“Teams came after Hisashi Iwakuma, but the Mariners wouldn’t deal him, figuring they can sign the free agent-to-be for another season or two.”

Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill sums up the Iwakuma situation in his analysis of the Mariners trade deadline. The major takeaways: trading the starter now doesn’t mean he couldn’t be re-signed in the offseason, and re-sign or not, hanging on to him was a mistake.

I have no qualms with bringing Iwakuma back in 2016 — it’s not like the Mariners don’t need the depth. My problem exists with whether or not the Seattle is willing to live in the reality of the situation. At season’s end Iwakuma will be a pitcher who’s entering his age-35 season with time spent on the disabled in consecutive years and a home run rate that’s doubled what it was previously.

Iwakuma’s 3.37 xFIP on the year tells us that if his home run rate returned to normal, his numbers would be similar to what he’s done in his short major league career. There is reason for optimism here, and Saturday’s 8 and 2/3 near-shutout performance against the Minnesota Twins offers a sterling reminder of that. But the risk is evident and counting on the native of Japan to perform as a No. 2 starter next year is silly.

With Major League Baseball flush with cash and teams willing to pay a premium for ‘what could be’, there isn’t much reason to suggest Iwakuma will sign cheap. Certainly there’s a good possibility that he takes something of a hometown discount. After all, Seattle has a noted history with Japanese players and offers strong organizational support as well as proximity to the home country.

The 34-year-old earned $7 million for the 2015 season and despite a down season could still command. Here are a few examples from this past offseason as to what teams were willing to pay for similar starters.

Brett Anderson — one year, $10 million plus incentives
The left-hander is a prime example of a player with sufficient talent but an inability to stay on the field. In 2009 he had a very good season for the Oakland Athletics, but it’s the only year he’s managed to make 30 starts. Including this year, he’s thrown just over 600 innings in his seven-year career. Anderson’s impact when he is on the field is obvious: his eight starts last year produced an even 1.0 fWAR, even while pitching in Colorado. He’s been healthy in 2015 though, and owns a 3.29 ERA and 3.65 FIP in 117 and 2/3 innings of work.

Edinson Volquez — two years, $20 million
Acquired by the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Josh Hamilton, Volquez have a career year in 2008 before struggling with injuries from 2009 to 2011. Upon joining the San Diego Padres in 2012, the right-hander would start a string of three-plus healthy seasons. His career numbers, a 4.30 ERA, a 4.27 FIP, and a 4.37 BB/9 aren’t inspiring, but he’s become a solid back-end of the rotation starter. Volquez is in the midst of another good season with the Kansas City Royals, holding a 3.20 ERA and 3.84 FIP in 22 starts.

Justin Masterson — one year, $9.5 million plus incentives
The former second-round pick was consistently an above average starter between 2010 and 2013, including a 4.3 fWAR 2011 season. Things went off the rails in 2014 though, as Masterson battled health and mechanical issues. He was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals at the deadline that year but the move to the National League didn’t help as he ended up in the bullpen after just six starts. It’s been a difficult 2015 with command becoming an issue, too. Masteron posted a 6.14 ERA in nine starts before being moved to the bullpen after the All-Star break.

All three pitchers signed at a younger age than Iwakuma will, with Volquez being the oldest of the bunch at 32.

A.J. Burnett was able to secure a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 38. But Burnett took a hometown discount coming off a down year — a 4.59 ERA and a 4.14 FIP in 213 and 1/3 innings pitched — that was preceded by a solid stretch including 7.3 fWAR between 2012 and 2013 with Pittsburgh.

The starting pitching market for medium-level starters didn’t greatly exaggerate this past winter like we have seen it do. But teams don’t seem to have a problem gambling on a starter with question marks at a rate of one-year and $10 million or so.

A great example is back in January 2010 when the Oakland Athletics gave Ben Sheets, who sat out the entire 2009 season recovering from elbow surgery, a $10 million guarantee for the upcoming season. Sheets would make 20 starts for the A’s posting a 4.53 ERA and a 4.71 FIP.

With all that in mind, Iwakuma has a good shot at a one-year deal around $10 million, perhaps after reaching a few incentives. Barring some sort of late season renaissance that a team is willing to buy into, he will fall short of what is projected to be a $15-to-16 million qualifying offer. There just isn’t enough stock to pay Kuma $15 million right now. Although $15 million in free agent dollars doesn’t buy what it used to, the starter has been a replacement level player this season.

The language in the right-hander’s contract may or may not protect him from receiving a QO — things are still unclear — but I’d be hedging my bets that he’d accept one. Younger players have had their own sorts of trouble finding a market after declining one.

I’m not sure what a hometown discount looks like for Kuma. If he’s willing to sign a one-year deal with a base salary around $7 million there’s room for upside. An $11 million guarantee isn’t likely to be a worthwhile endeavour.

Given the projected crop of free agent arms available this winter, it’s not like the Mariners won’t have other options for the rotation. Seattle probably won’t be in the market for the David Price‘s or Johnny Cueto‘s — or even the Jeff Samardzija‘s — of the market, but other names like Yovani Gallardo and Tim Lincecum could be targets.

Is that money better spent on one of those arms instead? I’m not sure. But as a pitcher who has missed half a season and been inconsistent when healthy, the risk with Iwakuma may start to outweigh the reward. Though he flashes signs of it, it’s apparent that he’s no longer the pitcher he was in 2013.

And if a team is willing to give Anderson or Masterson $10 million, another team probably does that for Iwakuma — and it shouldn’t be the Mariners.

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Tyler Carmont

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