Hisashi Iwakuma And The Future

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There was an article about the Mariners that escaped my attention the other day, and this is a link to that article. It comes from Geoff Baker, and it's about Hisashi Iwakuma's 2012 season, and within, Iwakuma says that he'd like to return to the Mariners for 2013 and beyond. We're to the point now where a lot of people are thinking about the offseason to come instead of the present season that is, and Iwakuma will be among the Mariners' many offseason decisions to make. So we should talk about this now, even though this will not be the last time that we talk about this, by any means.

You have to remember the background. Two years ago, Oakland submitted the high posting fee for the rights to negotiate with Iwakuma, and the two sides couldn't agree on contract terms. Oakland reportedly offered something modest, while Iwakuma's representation reportedly requested something far less modest. It didn't go very well and Iwakuma returned to pitch in Japan, where he hurt his shoulder. That's what drove his price down and allowed the Mariners to sign him for pretty cheap.

Nobody liked the way Iwakuma looked in spring training, and a guy who was supposed to be in the starting rotation out of the gate wound up instead at the back of the bullpen, or at the front of the bullpen, depending on how you like to think about the bullpen. Iwakuma was hardly ever used. You remember this. He pitched twice in April, debuting in the Mariners' 15th game. He pitched three times in May. For a time he didn't feel like he was a member of the team. For a time he basically wasn't a member of the team. He sat in the Jeff Gray seat, and people thought he was Jeff Gray, and nobody knew why Jeff Gray was hanging around but they figured he wasn't bothering anybody just sitting there.

Since then, Iwakuma has really gotten going, and since the beginning of July, Iwakuma has been in the rotation. He's been effective, which has been great, but one had to wonder whether his opinion of the Mariners had soured on account of his under-use. We've known that Iwakuma was going to be a free agent again, and we've known for some weeks that he's an interesting candidate to be re-signed, but we didn't know if he'd be open to re-signing. Maybe Iwakuma had had his feelings hurt, and maybe he wanted to get a fresh start somewhere else.

Turns out his feelings weren't hurt. Turns out Iwakuma actually agreed that he was kind of shitty and didn't deserve to be used very often early on. There were a lot of adjustments that Iwakuma had to make and only after a few months did he start to feel like he made them. This could all be bullshit, of course, Iwakuma just saying what he thinks would be the right thing to say to the media, but I'm not going to sit here and call Hisashi Iwakuma a liar. Are you going to call Hisashi Iwakuma a liar? You don't even know him. Try having faith in people. Let them let you down.

There's some debate over just how bad Iwakuma was at the start. He hasn't gained any velocity over the course of the season. The Mariners say he was too hittable early on, but that could be explained by BABIP randomness. I know that pretty much all first-hand observers agree that early Iwakuma looked like a liability. But conveniently, none of that matters anymore. That's in the past, and we don't have to wonder whether the Mariners were right to put Iwakuma in the bullpen. Now we just have to wonder whether the Mariners should bring Iwakuma back as a starter, since he sounds like he's open to the idea.

Iwakuma has made a dozen starts since July 2, always getting regular turns, and that's the relevant information we have to go on. He's averaged just under six innings a go, and he's posted a 2.80 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 25 unintentional walks. He hasn't shown any signs of fatigue. He's posted about the same groundball rate as Doug Fister, about the same contact rate as Jered Weaver, and about the same xFIP as Jordan Zimmermann. His FIP is rubbing shoulders with Mat Latos', and Iwakuma probably shouldn't be counted on to allow home runs at the same rate as he has. If he were that easy to square up, he probably wouldn't have a .273 BABIP and an above-average strikeout rate.

Those are the numbers. It's easy to note that they're inflated by a 13-strikeout performance against a depleted Blue Jays team, but you can't just throw out exceptionally good performances while keeping unusually bad performances, and that start is a relevant data point. Iwakuma proved that he can do that, just like he proved that he can go a start with three walks and zero strikeouts, as he did against Texas. We always care most about the overall picture, and the overall picture has Iwakuma being a perfectly competent middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Who's 31, with shoulder problems in the past, but with no signs of shoulder problems lately. Iwakuma looks like a guy worth having, if he can be had. So there are two questions: do the Mariners need him? And, what would he cost?

The answer to the first question is, yeah, the Mariners could use a starter, and realistically they could use more than one. Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas will be in the rotation next year, barring a move or unforeseen criminal behavior. After them it gets dicey real fast. You like Erasmo Ramirez? Great, there's your #3. You can round the rotation out with Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi. Congratulations, now you hate yourself. The Mariners are known for their pitching prospects, but out of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Brandon Maurer, zero prospects seem ready, and of course zero pitching prospects can be counted on for anything. The rotation needs help, and if you end up in a situation where all of the prospects suddenly need room, well, I mean, that's super terrific. You can always deal starting pitchers. For now, the rotation needs bodies before the prospects become those bodies.

And the money? Iwakuma wants a multi-year deal, apparently, after signing a one-year deal in 2012. He was signed to a cheap deal last offseason and he'll end up with just about a half-season's worth of starts. His value isn't going to be super high because he won't exactly seem all that proven, so you could probably get him for two years and -- this is me guessing -- $14-16 million or so. Know that I'm not very good at contract guesses. The Mariners will have both the money and the need, and while Iwakuma isn't the only starter they could sign, he's one they know, and he's one who likes the area, since Seattle is very welcoming in its natural beauty and hands-off approach to personal interaction. Iwakuma and his family know they can live a good life where they are, and they don't know that about other places.

Literally anything could happen between now and the end of the year. From there, literally anything could happen between the end of the year and any Iwakuma contract negotiations. Right now, at this writing, Iwakuma looks like a good pitcher to re-sign. And he'd evidently like to be re-signed. It took Iwakuma some time to arrive, and he might just stick around for a while.

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