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With Iwakuma headed for free agency, the choice to return isn't his alone

Iwakuma isn't the only party here who will have to ponder whether or not a reunion with the Mariners is the right idea.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Look, Hisashi Iwakuma will probably pitch for the Seattle Mariners in 2016. That is all but assumed by fans and baseball insiders alike. There's interest on Iwakuma's part, and there's obviously interest—and desperate need—on the Mariners' side of the table.

But a reunion isn't guaranteed yet. There'd been talk months back it was possible a deal may be reached by the end of the 2015 season. That's part of the reason the Mariners held onto the righty the deadline, that they'd have a lengthy window where they'd be the only team that could negotiate him. Well, that window's closing soon and, even if it's likely he returns, that's not insignificant.

So, here we are, with these the most latest proceedings.

From Jon Heyman:

They will make a two-year offer to Hisashi Iwakuma on top of the $15.8-million qualifying offer, as they hope to bring him back

But then there's this little nugget from Nick Cafardo out of Boston:

On Sunday night, Dombrowski met with Hanley Ramirez’s agent, Adam Katz. He also represents righthander Hisashi Iwakuma, who is seeking at least a four-year deal.

Huh. At least a four-year deal? The possibility (probability?) always exists that Iwakuma is intent on returning to Seattle, and his agent is simply out there having the market set the rate, trying to pull the Mariners up from two years to three. That's how negotiating works.

Then again, all it takes is one team, one organization or owner who has no problem throwing money around like it's nothing as they, I don't know, try to cling to the last hopes of a title window.

And oh what's this:

Bob Dutton reported just today that "the predominant view within the industry is he and the Mariners will eventually reach an agreement," so I don't intend to cause alarm, just simply note where we are with things—which is, Hisashi Iwakuma will be a free agent, and this is what free agency looks like.

Free agency, if you'll remember, is not Dipoto's preferred route for building the foundation of his team. This is different, one might say, and that'd be partly true due to a variety of factors. But the market will play a large role in setting Iwakuma's value for whatever number of years it says on his deal, and as this inches farther away from the Mariners getting a hometown discount and towards traditional free agency, it won't only be Iwakuma considering whether or not a reunion is the right course.

This, honestly, is a little bit like a break-up—though I'm not implying this is headed for one. At first, if it's not your decision, you think only of the downside. You think, if there's anything you can do, you'll do it, because life without this other person will be worse. It has to be worse. And you forget, initially, it's not all bad.

The same holds for the Mariners, with three upsides there in the unlikely event of Iwakuma's departure:

  • Of course, there's the qualifying offer. If Iwakuma does depart, the Mariners will have two high picks to replenish a badly depleted farm system, both their existing 11th-overall choice and then the compensatory pick between the first and second rounds. On the off-chance Dipoto does choose to splurge on a big free agent, that compensatory pick could potentially soften the blow of losing the first.
  • Speaking of free agents, there is of course the financial window that flies open, with the Mariners having an extra ~$12-15 million to spend this year and the next few. The overarching consideration here is whether or not Hisashi Iwakuma is the best place to spend that eight-figure sum.
  • And finally, with this point closely related tot he past, you remove the risk that comes with hitching your fortunes to a 34-year-old pitcher with recent injury history. The Mariners were rewarded handsomely once before when betting on Iwakuma following an injury—and that being a shoulder injury—but the risks grow higher with every mile on the odometer and zero on the contract.

And it's easy to say that now is the time for risk, with the contention window tied to Felix Hernandez, Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz quickly closing. The Mariners are supposedly backed into a corner here.

That was actually the exact point a fan made to Jerry Dipoto at a season ticket holder Q&A session shortly after the GM was hired. Dipoto opened with, among other things, his preference for trades to free agency, and an open statement on not going after the upper-echelon free agents.

This fan responded with a rant that went on for at least two minutes and I'm not sure ever reacjed an actual question, with him explaining that, with the farm system barren of trade pieces, the Mariners were backed into said corner and would have to go to the free agent market to get their core some help.

Dipoto measured his response, and answered accordingly. Empasis added here.

There are pieces in the minor league system, there are pieces on the major league club, there are ways that you can be creative that you’re not aware of. This is where we sit today. We go out and we play at the top of the free agent food chain—the corner that you spoke about, that is the quickest way to ensure that we will never get out of it.

The easiest way to ensure that we’ll get out of it is to develop players at the younger levels, to bring in two-for-ones in trades to build depth and we may not be a 116-win juggernaut but we’re going to compete and get into a postseason, and we’ll be competitive by shaping a major league team that fits this ballpark and allows us to win.

And it's a couple points here that's going to make Dipoto and this front office think hard about what he has, and what he wants.

The Mariners had one of the best staffs in baseball in 2014, both the rotation and the bullpen. Part of that was health, part of it was depth and part of it was blind luck. But look back on the guys the Mariners were running out behind that staff, specifically the outfield. Those popularl alignments: Ackley, Almonte, Saunders. Ackley, Almonte, Gillespie. Ackley, Jones, Saunders. Ackley, Jackson, Chavez. Ackley, Jackson, Denorfia. I could go on.

Now, those aren't the Kansas City Royals or anything, but they were real outfielders—and Dipoto has to account for actually having those in 2016 when planning for what to expect, and need, on the run prevention front. If he's confident he can put together a group in the outfield exceptional at converting balls in play into outs, maybe he's willing to make sacrifices elsewhere.

And lastly, as we've seen, Dipoto's confident in his ability to add pitching. He's already done it. And that was one of the points he raised in the aforementioned Q&A.

I’ve been fairly proactive in my executive life at going out and acquiring pitchers that are between 21 and 26 years old that are optional and flexible, and can send them up and down. Some of them turn into Patrick Corbin and Hector Santiago, who pitched in A star games, and others like Tyler Skaggs and Daniel Hudson, that you never heard of the day we got ‘em, and the next year they walk out there and throw 200 innings and win 16 games.

Now, I don't know if Dipoto can pull cost-controlled 24-year-old Iwakuma out of nowhere, but I wager he's going to try.

There's a lot going on here, but it does all likely end with Iwakuma returning. And that isn't to say anything of ownership's potential role in steering what happens, which I'd rather not get into.

But either way, Jerry Dipoto and this front office are going to have think about this a bit. And that's exactly what they should do.