Hisashi Iwakuma: Player Of Interest

You might remember that, last offseason, the Oakland A's won the rights to negotiate with posted Japanese starter Hisashi Iwakuma. It was a surprising announcement on account of Oakland A's, but they submitted the high bid of $19.1 million. In the end they did not end up spending that $19.1 million, as the A's and Iwakuma failed to reach an agreement. Some people thought the A's cheated, blocking Iwakuma from competitors with a high bid despite having no intention of signing him. Other people did not think this. There were a variety of opinions, by which I mean there were at least two opinions.

You might not remember that, last offseason, after the A's were revealed as the winners, reports emerged that the Mariners didn't make a bid. There had been talk that the Mariners were heavily interested in Iwakuma, but then there was talk that the Mariners weren't really interested at all. Quote:

But the Mariners "did not bid on this guy,'' one source said. "They didn't participate.''
...
The Mariners scouted him, then decided to pass.

"It was a baseball decision,'' the source said. "It didn't have anything to do with the ownership group.''

Now, we don't know if that's true or false. The posting process is a weird one, and it can be difficult to uncover the truth. But here's what we know now: Iwakuma's a free agent. He's 30 years old. And the Mariners are supposedly hot in pursuit.

According to Jon Heyman, the M's are gunning for Iwakuma, along with two other AL teams. According to Nikkan Sports, the M's could be close to signing Iwakuma. Those say two different things, although now that I think about it, they really don't. "Could" is such a powerful word, for a not powerful word.

It passes the smell test. The Mariners have been in search of a veteran starter, and Iwakuma is a veteran starter, albeit a veteran somewhere else. I don't know if the Mariners are considering Iwakuma instead of other options or Iwakuma along with other options, but nothing about this is outlandish. We just don't know the depth of the Mariners' interest, or the level of Iwakuma's demands. Desires? Desires is probably better. Iwakuma is in no position to make demands.

So what is a Hisashi Iwakuma? Again, he's 30. Japanese. Right-handed. He throws a fastball in the 87-91mph range, seemingly having lost some velocity to shoulder issues. He throws that ever-popular shuuto, which is a lot like a two-seamer. He has a splitter, and a slider, and a curve, and when all of his pitches are working he's flat-out dominant, as is the case with every pitcher everywhere. You're free to analyze his pitches on YouTube, although you should remember that most of that footage is highlights, and highlights deceive. No player is ever as good as he looks in his highlights.

Statistically, Iwakuma shines as a control specialist, having walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings over the last four years. He hasn't missed that many bats, putting up a roughly league-average strikeout rate, but he's excelled by avoiding walks and avoiding home runs. Over that same four-year span, his ERA is 2.58. Last year he was about as effective as D.J. Houlton, which is a good thing in Japan.

The concerns are that Iwakuma's shoulder might be in less-than-great shape, and that he might have trouble recording strikeouts against Major League hitters. There is also the possibility that his shoulder is fine, and that he could make the transition with ease. For all of the words people have written about Japanese players coming to the States, nobody has been able to reliably identify who'll be good and who'll be bad. Iwakuma could be good, or bad, or somewhere in between.

So we see. It all depends on the price, right? It's not like Jeff Francis, Jamie Moyer and Kevin Millwood are guaranteed to be successful, either. And Iwakuma has that upside that the others don't. Who's to say he doesn't adjust as well as Koji Uehara adjusted? Francis could be a #4 or a #3. Iwakuma could be a #4 or a #3 or a #2. To explain this unscientifically.

If Iwakuma checks out physically, he's a very interesting option. We'll see where this one goes. With the Mariners being in their current position, there's something to be said for an unknown over a Francis or a Millwood. Francis and Millwood are known. So very known. Iwakuma has that volatility you hate as a contender but love as a longshot.

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