With the flurry of moves made by the Seattle Mariners over the past two weeks, it’s easy to forget that Major League Baseball’s offseason has only just started. Since that is the case, the market for many free agents, including Hisashi Iwakuma, has yet to develop. This isn’t unusual as many mid-tier free agents sign around the winter meetings in early December, or once one of the big fish have signed and helped set the market.
For Iwakuma and the Mariners, the situation seems simple enough: both parties are interested in a reunion. General manager Jerry Dipoto has gone so far as to say re-signing the right-hander is a priority and there hasn’t been any indication Iwakuma would prefer pitching elsewhere.
The 34-year-old has accumulated 8.6 fWAR over the past three seasons and owns a career 3.62 FIP in 653 and 2/3 innings pitched. While Iwakuma won’t blow hitters away with velocity, he’s posted a ground ball rate north of 50 percent in all but one of four major league seasons and is excellent at limiting walks. There’s some evidence to suggest that this type of skill set will age well. He’s also been relatively healthy aside from a disabled list stint this past season for a lat strain.
Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins recently examined the situation and noted that a three-year extension would take Iwakuma through his age-38 season, a risky proposition. Three years isn’t an unreasonable ask for the right-hander, particularly in free agency, but it could be a little rich for Seattle’s taste.
For the same reasons that Iwakuma is valuable to the Mariners, he could be valuable to 29 other clubs. And there’s no reason to think that a reunion is a sure thing.
There hasn’t been much talk about potential landing spots for Iwakuma outside of Seattle, but these are a few places where I believe there could be a fit.
A major factor in Iwakuma’s free agency was his rejection of the qualifying offer. Any team looking to sign him would have to commit multiple years and surrender a draft pick for his services. This doesn’t mean that another team won’t make an attempt to sign the right-hander, but does give the Mariners an advantage as there is no draft pick cost.
There hasn’t been any indication that the M’s aren’t the leader for Iwakuma’s services. Behind Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker exists three question marks, with James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Mike Montgomery, and Nate Karns in that conversation. Walker could well be a question mark, too. Seattle needs to acquire a No. 3 at the least, with a No. 2 behind Felix being ideal.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The rotation is currently bare behind Clayton Kershaw and Brett Anderson as Zack Greinke is a free agent and Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu recovering from injuries. LA is expected to be active in the free agent market and have been linked to bigger names like David Price and Jordan Zimmermann. However, Andrew Friedman and co. elected to make lower-level pick-ups at the trade deadline this past July, acquiring Alex Wood and Mat Latos instead of an ace, and could look to make similar value adds this winter.
Los Angeles, like Seattle, provides easy access to Iwakuma’s native Japan. It’s wrong to assume that location is always a factor in a player’s desired destination, but there’s a good chance it’s in play here. Obviously money is no problem for the Dodgers, so if they feel that Kuma is the missing piece, they won’t be beat on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers are also in the market for rotation depth but appear to be avoiding the higher-priced options. It’s possible Iwakuma could be interested in joining his former Rakutan teammate Masahiro Tanaka. Of course there is concern over Tanaka’s health as he pitched the season with a partially torn rotator cuff and underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery back in October. There’s also some uncertainty with C.C. Sabathia who has battled injuries and ineffectiveness the past couple years and missed the American League Wild Card game after checking into rehab.
New York has been a major player in free agency, but in recent years have turned more towards the trade market for potential solutions. They have also made a much-needed push towards getting younger with Luis Severino in the rotation and recently acquired outfielder Aaron Hicks. There’s also some discussion that the Yankees would rather trade for a younger, controllable starter. The club’s preference is for a high strikeout and ground ball rate pitcher with a low walk rate, a mold Iwakuma fits.
San Francisco Giants
The giants are very much in on this winter’s free agency prizes, Greinke and Price, and have the resources to make that dream a reality. They were also heavily involved with Jon Lester last year. Not to suggest Iwakuma is in the same ranks as these pitchers, he’s not, but should San Francisco fail to lure a big-time starter to the Bay Area, their attention no doubt will turn to other mid-tier options.
Beyond Madison Bumgarner the rotation needs help. Jake Peavy and Matt Cain are solid veterans but combined for 171 and 1/3 innings last year due to injuries. Sticking with the narrative that the Giants will win the even-numbered 2016 World Series, a couple short-term upgrades should be in order. San Francisco is another west coast team and offers a friendly pitching environment that could interest Iwakuma.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays pursued Iwakuma two summers ago as a trade target, and although Alex Anthopolous is no longer the decision-maker, his right-hand man at the time, Tony LaCava, is the interim general manager. A lot can change in two years, however, so reading too much into that is unwise. But Iwakuma does fit Toronto’s needs in several ways. The club doesn’t appear to be a serious player for Price and also stands to lose Mark Buehrle to free agency or retirement, two holes that need to be filled in the rotation.
The Blue Jays are in position to win now and are looking to maximize the seasons of potential free agents Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, though both could be extended. The club also acquired Jesse Chavez from the Oakland Athletics to beef up the pitching staff, but are still looking to add another starter. Iwakuma’s ground ball tendencies and Toronto’s excellent defense could match-up well.
Marco Estrada, also a recipient of the qualifying offer, elected to re-sign with Toronto for two years and $26 million. Estrada doesn’t have the track record that Iwakuma does, but the 32-year-old likely saw potential suitors back off, either in total or in potential dollar commitments, with the qualifying offer in play.
I’m not prepared to suggest the same fate awaits Iwakuma. If he were to receive a three-year deal though, I could see the average annual value being closer to $13-to-14 million instead of $16-to-17 million with the qualifying offer in mind.
As with all free agents it only takes two bidders — or if you’re represented by Scott Boras, one and a ‘mystery team’ — to drive the price past what initially was deemed reasonable.
I still think Seattle and Iwakuma get something done, but he’s not without options should a reunion become out of reach.