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

Tyler is an entrepreneurial student living in Vancouver, B.C. with a love of all things baseball, hockey and rock'n'roll. He is a proud supporter all MLB players from the great white north and longs for a return of October baseball to the Pacific Northwest. Tyler joined the PI team in the fall of 2013.

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16 thoughts on “Speculating an Iwakuma extension

  1. Edman

    Key words “if the reports are true”. I doubt that Jack was ever told that he couldn’t entertain offers for Iwakuma. And, perhaps it was a strategy not to shop him, but let teams come to Seattle, which is valid if you don’t want to seem too eager to move him. It’s completely illogical to conclude that Jack had any powers to negotiate taken away. What if Pittsburgh offered Cole and McCutcheon? Even Felix, as highly unlikely as it is, is available for a drastic overypay. Would he likely have to get permission to trade him? Of course, he’s considered a star player. And like all baseball GM, for a player of that caliber, they would have to get management approval.

    Like it or not, EVERY team in major league baseball markets their teams. Oakland had a Hello Kitty Bobblehead, Tampa Bay had a Evan Longoria Rubber Ducky night. I get tired of that comment, because if you don’t market the team, you don’t profit, and thus you can’t raise payroll. It’s all part of baseball, no matter how many wins and losses a team incurs.

  2. Jason A. Churchill

    I think they could have gotten 60-70% of what OAK got for Kazmir. But I don’t think not trading Iwakuma is the mistake. Ownership getting into the baseball decisions is. Refusing to negotiate with clubs to see what you can get for a player is just plain stupid. In the end, maybe the offers wouldn’t have been good enough, But if the reports are true, the M’s don’t know the answer to that because ownership decided to step in and mettle. Again.

  3. Jason A. Churchill

    And this is the kind of approach by ownership that ultimately leads to more bobbleheads and not more wins. And one last time — the mistake wasn’t not trading Iwakuma, it was refusing to discuss him with other clubs to see what you could get. STUPID. PERIOD. End of freaking story. They had NO idea he was going to throw a no-hitter and the ultimate value of a no-hitter in terms of putting a better team on the field? ZIP. Not an opinion, it’s literally ZERO.

  4. Edman

    oops…….”exceptional play of Nelsen Cruz.”

  5. Edman

    I’ll take the fifth no-hitter in team history, instead of a few prospects, any day. In a lost season, stories like this, and the exceptional play, will keep fans coming through the turnstiles.

  6. rjfrik

    Jason. If we really could have received the same return that Oakland did or Kazmir we made a BIG BIG mistake. I understand keeping Kuma if the return is garbage, but if we could have netted anything close to what the A’s got for Kazmir, the Mariners really made a BAD mistake!

  7. Jason A. Churchill

    As for Iwakuma taking a trade to mean something it doesn’t, get off that, Edman. Ichiro is and was as cultrually Japanese as any player that has ever played in the states and he’s said AFTER the trade that because the team kept him in the loop, asked his thoughts and were up front with him the whole time, he respects the organization even more. There’s a way to handle these situations. All of them. This is all complete made-up B.S. Stop pretending every possibility you think of is actually plausible. Good lord, man.

  8. Jason A. Churchill

    Edman — if you read my take on the Iwakuma situation, you’ll know I didn’t call it a screw-up for not trading him. It’s a screw-up to not even consider it enough to talk to other clubs. But for ownership to make a baseball decision and not allow the GM to discuss a player in trade is preposterous. Period. You have to let those talks take place, if your baseball guy wants to do so. The ownership has no business making baseball choices. It’s one of the main reason this organization is a complete joke. The joke ownership keeps pretending they know baseball. They’ve made it very clear to the rest of MLB that they DO NOT.

    I know one GM that would have paid close to what HOU did for Kazmir to get Iwakuma for two months. I think he’s too high on ‘Kuma, but to pass on the opportunity is absurd. ABSURD.

  9. Edman

    Opinions are fine, except that some turn them into facts. The only real facts is that none of us have a complete enough picture to determine if the M’s screwed-up, or not. Because you didn’t get the result “you” expected, does not equate to failure. Until this all plays out, we’ll never know.

    And BTW, I’m not overwhelmed with the return for Lowe. I think it’s fair, all factors considered. But to be happy with the same kind of return for Iwakuma, IMO, would be selling low (no pun intended).

  10. Tyler Carmont

    I understand your point, Edman, but perspective translates to opinion, and we are all offering our opinions here. That’s what’s facilitating the discussion.

    Big picture with Iwakuma: he’s a free agent to be on a non-playoff team with a market that overpays for starting pitching at the deadline. It’s less that they didn’t move him and more that they didn’t even entertain the option. In my opinion that’s more to the issue — if teams weren’t interested at all, then of course holding on to him makes sense. But my assumption is that’s not the case, and you would have gotten at least what came for Lowe.

    Small picture with Iwakuma: I get the cultural thing and am not going to claim it’s a non-issue. But we are also making that assumption about Kuma – what if he’s the opposite? We know the expression money talks and something walks, but undoubtedly players come to understand the business side of the game, as difficult as it may be sometimes (Jose Reyes was reportedly in tears after learning he had been traded). Within your thought, maybe sending Kuma to a contender to give him a shot at a playoff run would show the same honor or value. We don’t know. For as hands-off as we may be in analyzing the FO moves, we’re even further away from player’s personal lives, especially the quieter ones.

    Most opinions on this are reasonable. Point is, we’ll never know all the factors and we can’t expect to. That’s part of the fun in my opinion.

  11. Edman

    Bottom line is that it’s the Mariners money to spend. You may not agree, but they have a good idea what costs will be, and the negotiating power they have with Iwakuma. The problem with hands-off analysis, is that we all tend to judge from our point of view, not from the point of view from inside the front office.

    As much as I respect Jason, I’m not fond of calling not trading Iwakuma a “screw-up”. A screw up would be to only consider the business prospective, while not understanding the cultural differences between a Japanese player versus a spoiled American player who values money before honor. If Iwakuma was traded, he could take it to mean that the Mariners don’t really “value” his services.

    There is no screw-up yet. There is a difference of perspective. Unless you know all the factors, including what other teams were willing to trade for the rental of a pitcher with only a few starts, coming off a bad start, just before the deadline, then nobody knows enough to render a reasonable opinion.

  12. marinercoug

    I didn’t get to it for a while in my post, but, the extension of the Qualifying Offer was based on his concluding the rest of the season pitching as well as he has. If he does, extend the QO. I cannot see him accepting the QO if he has a multi year off out there. And, if he keeps pitching well, he knows he will. And, if he pitches well, there is no way he is coming back at 6-8 per. None.

    The place where it gets tricky is if he struggles. In that scenario, I would low-ball him. And, therein is the risk the Ms took and the reason I can see why not trading him was a mistake. But, from what I have seen the past month, I don’t think this will be the case.

    In the end, the chances he comes back at the QO is very small…
    – If he pitches to 2013 form, it’s a no-brainer.
    – If he pitches as well as he has since he came off the DL, some up some down, he very likely still wouldn’t accept one b/c he knows more $$$ is out there. The market would still give someone with Kuma’s history multi years at over 20 combined, age and injury concerns and all.
    – Or, he doesn’t pitch well and won’t get one. Then your 6-8 #s come into play.

  13. Paul Martin

    If ownership stopped Jack from trading him, might they further interfere and offer Kuma crazy money like the did with Kenji Jojima (that catcher) a few years ago???

  14. Jason A. Churchill

    Like Tyler said above, you can’t take a flyer on Iwakuma for $15-16 million. Can’t. Smart organizations trade this player, even if they’d like to discuss getting him back for the following year. The QO is worth twice as much what Kuma is worth on a one-year deal and it’s clear the Mariners aren’t willing to go all Yankees or Dodgers in terms of payroll. Allowing Iwakuma the opportunity to accept twice his market value abd handicap the GM, whoever it is, is 100% moronic.

    The Mariners have NONE of the power in that scenario. ZERO. The fact that they wouldn’t even have serious trade talks with clubs is one of the dumbest things the ownership has ever done. Not because the return is going to be Bryce Harper or something, but because it paints their own GM in a corner. It’s inexcusable and incomprehensible of Howard Lincoln.

    “If he struggles mightily the rest of the way, low ball him.”

    If you offer the QO, you can’t low ball him. It’s a set number, end of story. Since he wasn’t traded (yet, I guess), you have to tender the QO if you want to avoid risking getting ZERO future value out of him. He WILL have options on the open market. I know a GM that prefers Iwakuma to Scott Kazmir. I don’t agree, but all it takes is ONE.

    Iwakuma is highly likely to accept the QO if he doesn’t get the kind of multi-year deal from SEA that he wants. He’s more likely to take the 1-year, $15 million than a 2-year, $17 million deal from anyone, including Seattle.

    Sorry, marinerscoug, you’re WAY WAY off here.

    The Mariners best option right now is ride out most of 15, see if Iwakuma wants a reasonable 1+1 or 2-year deal to stay, BEFORE the tender date comes. Otherwise the screw-up gets worse.

  15. Tyler Carmont

    If Iwakuma accepts a QO, you are paying ~$16 million for a rotation flyer. That’s too much. Even if he does finish 2015 strong, we are still talking about a guy who has missed at least a month in consecutive seasons and is about to play his age-35 season. That’s a lot of risk.

    Churchill’s point was that even if the M’s felt that Iwakuma would re-sign, there wasn’t any reason to not trade him at the deadline. It’s not an infrequent thing in sports for a player to be traded and then come back to the same team. I don’t know how much more value Iwakuma provides the M’s the rest of the season than a Roenis Elias or even a handful of Vidal Nuno starts.

    Sure, Seattle has some leverage here, but it’s not like they’re Kuma’s only option. This is a conversation worth having because it’s not as simple as give him a QO, let him reject and walk away or give him a low ball offer and expect him to sign. I said in the post, for a year and $6-8 million sure I’d bring him back. But for double that? No chance.

  16. marinercoug

    I love me some JAC, but I think he is dead wrong in his analysis of the way the Ms handled the Kuma situation at the deadline. If they believe they are able to extend him a QO, they handled this 100% correctly. The M’s have all the power here, and therefore to me, the Kuma conversation is one of the easiest of the off-season…

    If he struggles mightily the rest of the way, low ball him. He either accepts, and you have a great bounce back candidate or he goes back to Japan. Sure, maybe another club comes and offers significant money, but because he’s struggled, I seriously doubt it.

    If he pitches up to his 2012/2014/2015 #s the next 6 weeks, offer the QO. Your offer: 2/22, option for a 3rd @11, 2 mil buyout for the team. Shifts it to 2/24 in a worst case scenario. 2/24 for a still likely 2.5-4 win pitcher… Or he goes with another team and you get the draft pick. Win-win.

    IMO, easy end of conversation, bring on a new topic…

DISCUSS