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Seattle Mariners Re-Trap Hisashi Iwakuma

Ichiro being touched
Ichiro being touched

There are several ways in which we are kind of like monsters. Here is one of them. Come offseason time, we want our team to make moves, but we of course want our team to make good moves. Bad moves are only temporarily of interest. It's tricky enough to consistently make good moves, but what's more is that we like those good moves to take us by surprise, too. We like to be like, "wow, I didn't see that coming, awesome!" Like when the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee. Where in the hell did that come from? Good moves that you see coming are still good moves, and predictable good moves are better than no moves or unpredictable bad moves, but there's less of a thrill. We are just that difficult to please. When the world tries to please us, we have an unfortunate habit of being picky.

The Seattle Mariners have officially re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma. It was a near certainty that the Mariners and Iwakuma would reach an agreement on Friday, before Iwakuma became a free agent and complicated his relationship with the organization. This is a good move for the Mariners, but because we saw it coming, and because we discussed it just Thursday night, it might not feel as good as it should. We assumed this, and so to get this is simply to have our expectations fulfilled.

Iwakuma has signed for two guaranteed years, with a third-year option. In 2013, he'll make $6.5 million. In 2014, he'll make $6.5 million. In 2015, he'll get either a $1 million buyout, or a $7 million salary. So the Mariners have basically re-signed Iwakuma for either two years and $14 million or three years and $20 million. The Royals just agreed to pay Ervin Santana $12 million in one year. The Dodgers just agreed to pay Brandon League $22.5 million over three years. The Mariners signed Hisashi Iwakuma to a cheaper contract than that to which the Dodgers signed Brandon League.

The years aren't surprising and the money isn't surprising. Nothing here is surprising. It isn't surprising that the Mariners wanted to keep Iwakuma around. It isn't surprising that Iwakuma wanted to stay around. It isn't surprising that they reached a contract agreement without a whole lot of trouble. This is more or less exactly the contract that people expected Iwakuma to sign, and I'm pleased that he signed it with the Mariners.

Let's rewind a little bit. After the 2010 regular season, Iwakuma was posted, and the Oakland A's won the exclusive negotiating rights. Oakland didn't offer an acceptable contract and Iwakuma returned to Japan, becoming a free agent a year later. Excerpts:

The pitcher wanted a total package comparable to the $126 million, seven-year deal signed by San Francisco left-hander Barry Zito [...]

Japanese media had reported that Oakland made a four-year proposal worth $15.25 million. In terms of annual salary, it is equal to what Iwakuma made with the Eagles of Japan's Pacific League.

"Their offer was low and they weren't sincere," [agent Don] Nomura said.

Last year, with the Mariners, Iwakuma signed for a $1.5 million base, with incentives. Now he's signed for a maximum of $20 million over three years. He's doing better than he would've done had he signed that alleged Oakland contract, but it's funny how Oakland wasn't all that far off. Of course, Oakland didn't know that Iwakuma would hurt his shoulder. The Mariners know that Iwakuma hurt his shoulder. That does seem like quite the lowball now that I really look at it.

Based on that Zito-contract line, you might think that Iwakuma has a towering ego. Based on Iwakuma's early usage pattern with the Mariners, you might think a guy with a towering ego would want to go somewhere else, somewhere he'd be respected. Chances are that line is either complete bullshit or something out of the mouth of his agent. Alternatively, maybe Iwakuma was humbled by the shoulder injury, but nothing we've seen should suggest that Iwakuma is completely full of himself. Not only did he not complain about his limited use; he acknowledged later it was probably the right thing to do. Maybe that isn't how he actually feels, but that's how he says that he feels.

Do we need to go over Iwakuma as a starting pitcher again? He's 31 and right-handed. Last year he started 16 times and posted the same xFIP as Roy Halladay and Anibal Sanchez. There were 186 starters who threw at least 50 innings. Iwakuma's strike rate ranked 36th, his groundball rate ranked 38th, and his contact rate ranked 71st. His Pace ranked 186th. That is, Iwakuma was the slowest-working regular starting pitcher in all of major-league baseball. Slow pitchers are unpleasant, and the Mariners' broadcast never hesitated to point out Iwakuma's deliberate tempo, but slow pitchers are acceptable as long as they're effective and Iwakuma was effective. There's almost every reason to believe he should remain effective going forward. He gave up a few too many homers, but that was probably a fluke, and even if it wasn't, he still wasn't bad. Iwakuma's got things working for him.

It's unlikely that Hisashi Iwakuma is going to be the key to a Seattle Mariners playoff run. There are plenty of ways for this deal to turn out sour, especially if Iwakuma ends up with a recurrence of his shoulder problems. Once again, there's a reason he agreed to sign such a seemingly reasonable contract. But out of all the contracts given to free-agent or would-be free-agent starting pitchers this offseason, Iwakuma's could and should look like one of the better values in the end. It doesn't take a lot to be worth $6 - $7 million a year, and Iwakuma's capable of a good deal more.