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Seattle Mariners Make a Splash, Sign Star Japanese Pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 23:  Starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma #20 of Japan delivers a pitch against Korea in the first inning of the finals of the 2009 World Baseball Classic on March 23, 2009 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Davis ZhaoCorrespondent IIJanuary 5, 2012

Well, it's about time the Seattle Mariners shook things up in free agency.

Making their first significant move (besides acquiring a backup catcher and a bullpen arm) this offseason, GM Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners signed Japanese RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, formerly of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The reason you probably haven't heard of Iwakuma is that fellow countryman Yu Darvish was all the hype earlier in the offseason.

But Iwakuma, widely believed to be one of the top pitchers in Japan over the past decade, is hardly a poor consolation. He was the Japanese Pacific League's MVP back in 2008, when he posted a 21-4 record with a jaw-dropping 1.87 ERA.

The M's didn't need to break the bank either, landing him for one year with a $1.5 million base salary, with the possibility of $3.4 million in incentive-based bonuses. He'll begin to earn those bonuses if he can pitch through 20 games or 140 innings.

However, at 30 years of age, Iwakuma is no Darvish (25), and he's coming off a shoulder injury from last season, a concern that made his deal a lot cheaper than it was a year ago when the Oakland A's offered him $15.25 million over four years. And that's not even counting the $19 million the A's shelled out just to talk to him.

With an injury that's caused Iwakuma to lose some of his velocity, the Mariners were smart to sign him to a virtually risk-free one-year deal. But with as many as five other teams trying to sign the star Japanese pitcher, it's possible that having national hero Ichiro in Seattle sealed the deal, as the front office tried to wine and dine Iwakuma.

In Iwakuma, the M's are getting a veteran righty with a fastball in the low 90's, and a steady groundball pitcher with excellent control. In his 2011 season, Iwakuma struck out 90 batters while just walking 19 in 119 innings, good for a solid 4.74 K/BB (strikeouts per walk) ratio.

 

To be clear, Iwakuma has had a few injuries in his career, but is still considered relatively durable after pitching over 200 innings in 2008 and 2010. He also might be the experienced arm the Mariners are looking for.

The M's were linked to veterans Kevin Millwood and Jamie Moyer earlier, and with good reason: If you take a look at their rotation options, there's very little MLB experience after Jason Vargas and Felix Hernandez.

Which brings us to an interesting point: Where does Iwakuma fit into next year's plans?

The Mariners have a deadly combination of Michael Pineda and King Felix at the front of the rotation, with Jason Vargas an expected major contributor in 2012 as well. But after that, they've got the still-developing Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush.

If you count minor leaguers, the Mariners have top prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, who, as talented as they are, might not pan out.

So, if we project the rotation for next year, with the remainder of the team staying put for the rest of the offseason, the top four should be some mix of Pineda, Felix, Vargas and Iwakuma—a staff that has the potential to be among the tops in baseball.

But for now, Iwakuma joins a growing list of Japanese players in Seattle Mariners history: Kazuhiro Sasaki, Kenji Johjima, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and of course, Ichiro Suzuki.

That list is expected to grow further as the Mariners are reported to be on the verge of signing another Japanese player—shortstop Munenori Kawasaki—to a minor league contract.

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