Mariners Add Some Cheap Upside With Iwakuma

The Mariners are one of the better run-prevention teams in baseball, and yesterday they added to a pitching staff that allowed the fourth fewest runs (675) in the American League last year by agreeing to a one-year contract with Hisashi Iwakuma. The 30-year-old right-hander will earn just a $1.5 million base salary in 2012, with another $3.4 million available in incentives tied to starts and innings pitched.

This deal comes one year after the Athletics won Iwakuma’s negotiating rights with a $19.1 million bid through the posting process, though the two sides failed to reach an agreement and the righty ended up back in Japan before becoming an international free agent this winter. Oakland was thinking something along the lines of $3-5 million per year while Iwakuma was said to be seeking Barry Zito money. The two sides never got close, so he returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles on a one-year, $3.6 million contract.

Unfortunately for Iwakuma, his stock took a hit in 2011. He missed part of the season with a shoulder injury, which caused his fastball velocity to dip from its usual 88-92 down into the 84-86 range. Patrick Newman has a velocity chart over at NPB Tracker. The fastball climbed back into the upper-80’s by the end of the season, alleviating some concerns. Iwakuma has a bit of a kitchen sink approach, pitching backwards and throwing offspeed stuff in pretty much any count. His slider and forkball are ahead of his curveball and changeup. Like most Asian pitchers, he adds a bit of deception to his delivery with a hesitation. Here’s a video of him pitching in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, with the forkball on full display.

Iwakuma is not Yu Darvish, at least not when it comes to missing bats and racking up strikeouts. His best single-season strikeout rate over the last four years is 7.1 K/9 and 20.2 K% way back in 2008, and over the last three seasons it’s a 6.7 K/9 and 18.2 K%. Iwakuma has limited walks though (1.8 BB/9 and 4.9 BB% last three years), and as Patrick explained last offseason, he gets a good amount of ground balls and generally keeps the ball in the park (0.7 HR/9 last three years). Safeco Field will help him out a bit in that regard, but batters here are more capable of the long ball than the guys Iwakuma is accustomed to facing in Japan. Patrick pegged his upside “in the mid-rotation starter range” last winter, but we probably have to adjust down a bit given his most recent injury*.

* It’s worth noting that his health problems extend further back than just 2011; shoulder woes limited him to just 128.2 IP from 2006-2007, and he also had an elbow procedure late in 2007.

As far as the Mariners are concerned, the deal is basically nothing but upside. A $1.5 million base salary is a pittance, less than what Yuniesky Betancourt and Fernando Rodney signed for this offseason. The bonuses don’t kick in until he makes 20 starts or throws 140 IP according to Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times, which gives the team more than enough time to evaluate his performance and decide whether or not to keep him around all year. If he pitches poorly, they’ll cut him. Simple as that.

I don’t want to go too overboard with the upside because Iwakuma is still a soon-to-be 31-year-old righty with a fringy fastball — plus there’s a decent chance he’ll be a sub-6.0 K/9 guy — but there’s very little risk as far as Seattle is concerned. All he needs to give the Mariners is about half-a-win to be worth the base salary, though a two or three-win season isn’t completely out of question with a favorable home park and a strong defense behind him. The M’s did well to scoop up a back of the rotation candidate for so cheap when comparable hurlers are getting two guaranteed years and upwards of $6 million per season on the open market.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

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