If you missed the notice, the Mariners came to a two-year agreement with starter Hisashi Iwakuma late Saturday night. The club will pay the right-hander $13 million over two years with an option to either bring him back in 2015 for $7 million or to buy out the third year for $1 million.
After posting a 3.16/4.35/3.76 ERA/FIP/xFIP (can we start calling this the pitcher slash? Iím going to start calling it the pitcher slash) last year, and more impressively, a 2.65/3.91/3.61 mark over his sixteen starts, re-signing Iwakuma was the Mariners first priority of the off-season. It was a contract situation that the Mís brass handled with aplomb, as $14 million over two seasons is a bargain for a strong number four starter. His price was driven down by a high homer rate coupled with a low strand percentage (and shorter fences next year) as well as lingering stigma from an old shoulder injury. Even with those concerns, in both years and dollars, this is not a large contract. At the end of the day, heís being paid less than $2 million per WAR, and even if his RA/9 increases by half a run, heís still providing surplus value.
With all that in mind, itís fair to suggest that the Mariners are continuing to profit from their relationship with Japanese players. Clearly the club has a competitive advantage in this department. The Mís have employed quite a few Japanese players in their history (eight, the second most in all of baseball) with an unusual degree of success (13 of the 20 times a Japanese player has made an all-star team he played for the Mariners). Between the connection via owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, relative geographic proximity, a sizeable Japanese population in the city itself, and the uninterrupted presence of a Japanese star on the team since 2000, Seattle has been an attractive landing spot for Japanese players since the Clinton administration.
Iwakumaís re-signing indicates that Seattle remains a desirable destination. Even if part of the Marinersí initial success in luring Japanese players can be traced to the popularity of Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro, itís telling that more than a decade removed from their debuts, the Mariners are still benefitting from Japanese imports. Last yearís team alone featured a player who only wanted to play for the Mariners (Munenori Kawasaki) and Iwakuma, who expressed a desire to remain in Seattle despite an unjust and unceremonious three month banishment to the bullpen.
Critically, Iwakumaís signing ensures that the Mariners will have a Japanese player on the roster for the fifteenth consecutive season. To put that number in perspective, the last time the Mís didnít roster a Japanese player on Opening Day, Edgar, Buhner, and Junior all homered, Randy Johnson threw the seasonís first pitch, and the game was played in the Kingdome. Itís been a long time, and a generation of Japanese fans and players has grown up knowing that a number of their countrymen have enjoyed success in a Mariner uniform. That Iwakumaís re-signing continues the streak renders the move even more significant.
The Mariners would be wise to continue capitalizing on their status as one of the dominant American baseball brands in the region, as these kinds of competitive advantages are ever shrinking. Last yearís collective bargaining agreement greatly hinders any team with a competitive advantage in amateur scouting (especially internationally) and the increasing prevalence of statistical analysis in front offices has shrunk another potential information gap.
By comparison to amateur scouting or sabermetrics, a competitive advantage with Japanese players seems like a relatively small benefit. But if the stories of Iwakuma and Kawasaki tell us anything, itís that the Mariners still have an opportunity to eek out more value from Japanese players than other clubs. Whether that gives them an inside track for a player like Shohei Otani, or any other individual free agent, we canít be sure. All we know is that Japanese players have a proud history in Seattle and that, in the aggregate, they like playing for the Mariners. Itís a tradition that the Mariners should continue fostering long after Iwakumaís deal expires.