We've known for some time that the Mariners are in the market for a backup shortstop behind Brendan Ryan, and while the team recently re-signed Luis Rodriguez to a minor league contract, it's doubtful that Rodriguez marked the end of their search. So now there's interesting and potentially convenient news out of Japan - 30-year-old shortstop Munenori Kawasaki has become a free agent, and in his press conference, he expressed a desire to play for Seattle, and only Seattle.
One's first response is, whoa, okay, that's really weird. One's second response is, what a terrible negotiating strategy. One's third response is, awesome, an international free agent, these guys are always exciting! And one's fourth response is to wonder whether Kawasaki is actually any good.
As for why this is less weird than it sounds, Kawasaki just wants to play for the same team as Ichiro, and not only because Ichiro is obviously a Japanese baseball icon - Kawasaki and Ichiro train together during the offseason. There's some kind of bond there that goes beyond the guys simply being players from the same country, and as hard as it can be to think of Ichiro having interpersonal relationships, I guess he has some kind of relationship with Kawasaki that hasn't scared him off. Or Kawasaki is an unstable stalker. He doesn't seem like an unstable stalker, but the best ones never do.
As for Kawasaki as a player - this is the important part. The Mariners have scouted him before, with one scout saying:
I’m grading him higher than (Tsuyoshi) Nishioka and (Hiroyuki) Nakajima in baserunning and defense. If he can hit .250 in the Majors that will be enough (to play regularly).
That is, of course, one scout's opinion, and I wouldn't take the .250 remark as science. That said, the consensus does seem to be that Kawasaki is a good defender, if not an excellent one, so that's a mark in his favor. The more he can do in the field, the less he has to do at the plate.
Which is good, because Kawasaki doesn't appear to bring a whole lot to the plate. Last season, he batted a paltry .267/.310/.327. In fairness, last season was one of woeful offense around the entire league, and in the four seasons previous, Kawasaki batted .304/.355/.392. That's much better. But even when he's been going well, Kawasaki hasn't walked much, and he hasn't hit for power. He's put the ball in play and run a lot. That's an approach that can work in the Major Leagues, provided the player is awesome at it, but it's an approach that usually doesn't work, at least very well.
So there are very legitimate questions concerning whether Kawasaki could hit at all over here. They don't all turn into Ichiro. Keep in mind that Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a pretty productive hitter in Japan before bombing with the Twins, albeit over a limited sample. Nishioka is fresh in the minds of many executives.
Kawasaki expressed that he'd be willing to accept a minor league contract. That does make things easier, bumping this most of the way from "oh I don't know" to "well why the hell not?" That would give the M's a chance to look at him in Spring Training without having made a real commitment. But what if he doesn't make the team? Who starts at short in Tacoma - Kawasaki, or Carlos Triunfel? This is one minor complication, as long as I'm getting ahead of myself.
What we have now is a Japanese shortstop of limited but potentially sufficient ability basically giving himself to the Mariners, and we have a general manager who, like a good, responsible general manager, is aware of what's up. I don't know where this is going to go, but either the Mariners will end up with an interesting new talent in the system, or Kawasaki is going to feel really, really bad about himself.
So that's all I have for holy fuck Kawasaki laid down 43 sacrifice bunts in 2009. 43 sacrifice bunts! In 143 games! The last Major Leaguer to drop down at least 40 sacrifice bunts was Bert Campaneris in 1977. Before that, it was Joe Sewell and Mule Haas in 1929. More like Munenori Kawa-sac-i! Yeah!