In late 2005, the Mariners found a solution to one of their more pressing problems: catcher. The season just prior saw Dan Wilson's career come to an end, Miguel Olivo fail to do much of anything as the supposed starter, and no fewer than five other catchers catching games for the team. Frankly, it was a bit of a mess.
Kenji Johjima fixed those problems. He gave the Mariners a legitimately above average starting major league catcher, and he did it for cheap. There was no need for protracted negotiations: a token visit to New York was the only indication that there was any interest on his part in other teams. He basically fell into Bill Bavasi's lap for the low cost of $5M dollars a year for three years, which was probably the best contract that Bavasi gave out with the team.
2005 saw seven catchers; 2006 featured three, and Guillermo Quiroz only got one game in. Johjima started 144 games and hit well, and not just for a hitter: .291/.332/.451 as a right hander in Safeco Field was by far the best offensive showing the Mariners had ever seen out of catcher. He went against the Dan Wilson grain behind the plate too, standing out with a bright red glove and a tendency to call pitches just to prove a point. Still, he wasn't a liability defensively (although he wasn't nearly as fluid as Wilson), and his bat went a long way in a season where not much else went right.
The Mariners won 88 games in 2007, a ten game improvement, but Johjima's numbers barely changed. He caught a few less games, hit for a little less power, but was basically the same above-average hitter that we'd enjoyed in the previous year. We were starting to take him for granted, too, and with Jeff Clement waiting in the wings perhaps forgot that our newest Japanese import had produced six WAR in two years.
2008 should probably have marked the end of his time with the Mariners, and it didn't start well, for the team or for Kenji. Crucial players got hurt, others fell apart, and Johjima managed a little bit of both, playing in many fewer games and battling a number of nagging injuries. His offensive numbers collapsed, and his relationship with the pitching staff grew ever more frayed. On top of that, he was signed to a three year, $24M extension that was so insane even Bill Bavasi didn't like it. Clement, meanwhile, was annihilating the PCL. To the team and fans, Johjima quickly became a liability.
Let's make no bones about it, 2008 absolutely sucked. He was barely above replacement for the season, which is impressive considering how low the bar is set for catchers, and he was part of the reason that the Mariners plummeted to a dismal 61-101 record. But perhaps it's worth remembering that over the first three years of the deal, Johjima provided almost $25M in value to the franchise in addition to the benefits of increased exposure in Japan. Kenji was an extremely valuable player over those first three years.
He was actually not too bad this year, either, managing 1 WAR in 71 games. But he had lost the confidence of the fans as well as his manager and his pitchers, and nothing short of a miraculous performance was going to bring those back. The starting catcher job grabbed hold of Rob Johnson and wouldn't put him down, and Kenji was left as an $8M backup catcher on a team which desperately needed the money. Others can give you more information about the details of Kenji's pitch calling vs. Rob's, but I'd fairly confidently say that Johjima was the best catcher on the roster in 2009, and had a good shot at repeating that feat in 2010 until he opted out of the deal a few hours ago.
It's wonderful news that Kenji is no longer on the books as far as the rebuilding effort goes. But don't forget what an excellent acquisition he was in the first place, or the years of good service he gave to the Mariners. To give up the money when he didn't have to was a wonderful thing for Johjima to do, and I hope he finds employment in Japan and has many more years of baseball ahead of him.
Thank you, Kenji Johjima. Thank you for both your time as a Mariner and the graciousness you showed in ending it.