This article was supposed to be a lot more timely than this. Hisashi Iwakuma was supposed to carve up the Astros, once again wowing us with his quietly effective brilliance. Instead, elevated pitches and George Springer happened, but even when Iwakuma is bad, he's still better than most. He's a Mariner through at least 2015 if they want him to be, and it's time to start thinking about what lies beyond that.
Watching ROOT broadcasts has been fascinating over the past year. I've noticed that they go out of their way avoid any graphics that compare Felix and Iwakuma. Because saber stats aren't exactly ROOT's specialty, Iwakuma's baseball card stats flat out look better than Felix's over the past year. If you're using run prevention as your primary method of evaluation, the gap between Iwakuma and Felix hasn't even been that close recently. Over the past calender year, Iwakuma carries a 2.71 ERA compared to Felix's 3.26. Felix is dominating Iwakuma in the peripherals, but there's a perfectly reasonable case that Iwakuma has simply been better over the past year.
But that's not something anybody seems willing to admit, including ROOT. Yesterday's game began with a graphic that showed Felix and Iwakuma's combined dominance, an ERA driven down by Iwakuma over the past two seasons. They're packaged as a two-headed monster, not individuals. Felix is the face of the franchise, the one with the monster contract, the one with all the awards and accolades. He stayed here when everyone else wanted him. He's ours, and you can't have him. He's the king. The nickname alone ends any conversation of comparison. If the Mariners want to keep these two together, it's time to start thinking about the future.
Jack Zduriencik's extension for Iwakuma following the 2012 season has been an even bigger bargain than anyone could have expected, as Iwakuma is signed for a mere $6.5 million this year and $7 million on an obviously exercised team option in 2015. He'll be 34 at the end of the deal, and if the Mariners don't sign him, he's going to get a nice payday from somebody else. Iwakuma has never been healthy two years in a row, dating back to his years in Japan, and his injury this year has once again pumped the breaks on his hype. Everyone is paying attention to Masahiro Tanaka as the new Japanese darling, and it will be months until Iwakuma gets enough innings to qualify on ERA leaderboards. The Mariners can keep him for cheap again next year, but his future cost may rise as a result.
There's a couple of options here. One, the Mariners can just ride it out and hope to re-sign Iwakuma following 2015. Iwakuma's extension came very quickly after the 2012 season, and there's no reason to believe he is unhappy in Seattle. But if the Mariners want to get a deal done before other teams can start bidding, they'll have to pony up and pay him. Another few years like last, and Iwakuma could demand $20 million or more a year, even at age 34.
That bring us to the other option worth considering, and that's investigating an extension now. The M's would likely be able to secure Iwakuma, if he were receptive to it, on a deal that could be below what he'd command in an open bidding war. In order to do so, the Mariners would most likely tear up next year's remaining option and start a new deal immediately, giving Iwakuma a big payday year a year earlier than he'd otherwise get it. Here, the Mariners could theoretically sign Iwakuma through 2018 or so as opposed to being forced to pay him through 2019, which somebody might be willing to give him after 2015. A four year extension would keep Iwakuma around until his age 37 season, which carries plenty of risk of its own, though less with a pitcher of Iwakuma's skillset. Pinpoint control, ground balls, efficiency. Hiroki Kuroda has a fairly similar, though less effective skillset, and he's just now beginning to fall apart at age 39, even though it's only May.
As mentioned before, a long-term deal for Iwakuma doesn't come without a lot of risk. A shoulder injury is what allowed the Mariners to scoop Iwakuma up for dirt cheap in the first place, and as mentioned before, he's had numerous injuries scattered throughout his career, including ones to his oblique and elbow. He isn't particularly durable, and even this year's finger mishap is another strike on the record. At this point, any team that signs Iwakuma should expect him to miss considerable time every other year or so, and that risk would need to be reflected in the cost. But if he puts together a fully healthy season next year, will it? Teams have short memories when they have glaring needs.
Given Iwakuma's age and where the market is headed, throwing away his option and signing him to a four-year deal through 2018 could be the best course of action for an extension. It's a risk to commit to an injury prone pitcher at a high valuation, but it's also risky to wait it out and be forced to pay even more after another two seasons of dominance. It seems unlikely that the Mariners trade him, but they might simply have to let him walk if they can't get a deal done. Given what's happened in the Mariners rotation over the last two months, a future without Hisashi Iwakuma seems sad.
I ask of you today, LLanders, what course of action would you take with Hisashi Iwakuma? If there's an offer on the table, what would it be for? How comfortable are you letting things play out until the end, or would you strike now while his value is potentially lower than it will be at any point in the next few years? Poll below.