In 2010, Hisashi Iwakuma wanted to make a move to the majors. He was seeking $12 million a season, and after the A's won the posting fee for him ($19.1 million), they couldn't reach an agreement. In fact, the A's were only really willing to offer $3-5 million a year for Iwakuma, making their investment far more beneficial for Rakuten than Iwakuma himself. Iwakuma opted to go back to Rakuten for $3.6 million until he could become an unrestricted free agent in 2011. Understandably, Iwakuma saw the flaws of the posting system, and wanted free bidding among all teams.
After the 2011 season, Iwakuma was back on the market, without a posting fee attached. An effective but injury-plagued season had soured his value a bit, and the post-posting fee hype had slowed. It wasn't until January that the Mariners snuck in and nabbed Iwakuma's services for a mere $1.5 million, though more incentives were available based on starts made -- the first milestones being at 20 starts and 140 innings.
It was a steal, and one that went mostly under the radar. Everyone focused all their attention on Yu Darvish, while Iwakuma quietly slid through the cracks. Once again, the Mariners milked the Japanese pipeline, and their history with Japanese players surely didn't hurt negotiations to bring Iwakuma to the table -- even though there were hardly any suitors named after his initial 2010 deal with the A's fell through.
Iwakuma didn't hit a single one of those incentives, falling short of both 20 starts (17) and 140 innings (125.1), as the Mariners used Iwakuma sparingly out of the bullpen for the first two months of 2012, as Iwakuma only made five appearances -- the Jeff Gray special. Maybe some of this was due to his shoulder and maybe some of it was due to saving money, but the Mariners somehow managed to be communicative with Iwakuma and not make him angry for cutting him short of his incentives.
Iwakuma finished 2012 as a very effective starter -- quietly doing the exact same thing he's done in 2013 and 2014, but the early usage and meaningless final months once again made his performance quieter than it should have been. Iwakuma wanted a multi-year deal, but didn't have a track record to command a really big one, especially after two straight years with injury concerns and shortened usage, one way or another.
After the season ended, it became public knowledge that the Mariners had slipped a clause in Iwakuma's initial deal that allowed the Mariners exclusive negotiating rights for an extra day, and if they didn't come to a deal with him by the end of that negotiating window, he wouldn't be able to pitch for the Mariners in 2013 until May 15th. Basically, if they didn't get something done, he was probably gone.
It was a crazy clause, one that I've never seen before and might not see again. The Mariners knew they had a potential steal with Iwakuma, and took a gamble that they'd be able to lock him up again by getting just an extra day. It put pressure on both sides to get a deal done right away -- the Mariners to lock up a major part of their rotation before they made any more decisions in the off-season, and Iwakuma to finally secure his multi-year payday with an organization and city where he felt comfortable.
Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners front office don't get nearly enough credit for what they've managed to do with Iwakuma. Stealing him post-hype while everyone focused on Darvish, structuring a cheap initial deal with what we'll call a "loyalty clause" at the end, and extending him for what's turned out to be a massive, franchise-altering bargain. And they'll retain his services yet again next year for just $7 million, thanks to a team option tacked on the end that has become such a no-brainer that his extension is presumed to be three years instead of two. I can't pretend to know exact player motivations, but I bet they've got a better chance at keeping him around for even longer than they do with most players about to hit free agency. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the Mariners tore up his option right away this winter and replaced it with another new deal -- once again offering him a deal after an injury-shortened year, even though this injury was minor and the track record is starting to build.
If there is no extension, the Mariners will have paid Hisashi Iwakuma somewhere in the neighborhood of $21.5 million over four years. In the last three seasons, here is the list of American League starters who have posted a lower ERA than Iwakuma:
Felix Hernandez is #2. There are other obvious factors at play here that wouldn't make anyone claim Iwakuma has been the best pitcher in the American League over the past three years, but c'mon. We've spent countless hours critiquing every single move, good or bad, Jack Zduriencik has ever made over the duration of his regime. We analyze every single thing Z has ever done, wasting words on mostly meaningless moves that we don't like but probably won't matter -- all while mostly ignoring one of the single best set of transactions in Mariner history when we evaluate what Z has done with the Seattle Mariners.
Zduriencik has taken his fair share of lumps over the past three or four years in particular, but he's coming off a good off-season and an excellent trade deadline, and the Mariners are legitimate playoff contenders in the latter half of August, mostly thanks to the best duo of pitchers in baseball. No other team has two pitchers as good as Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and both have either come and/or stayed under Z's regime.
Every move should be graded on an individual basis, but this is a love letter that at least I feel is vastly overdue. What the Mariners have managed to do to acquire and retain Hisashi Iwakuma's services for a minimum of four years has been nothing short of brilliant.
They're ours and you can't have them.