Seattle Mariners: Is Hisashi Iwakuma Worth Keeping?
For those of you living in Seattle that are still paying to the Mariners, I applaud and admire you not abandoning ship just at the Seahawks started their preseason schedule Saturday night.
While everyone else this weekend went about debating whether Russell Wilson has what it takes to be the Seahawks' starter either this year or down the road, a dedicated few Mariner fans may have noticed the team win a series on the road in Anaheim of all places, and without much help from Felix Hernandez.
Sure, Felix gave it a try Friday night, but I suppose he can't win them all.
No, instead of talking about King Felix or Jason Vargas, I'm more interested today in discussing the pitcher who has quietly worked his way into the M's rotation following what could be described as a long transition from the bullpen.
For, you see, it's easy to forget about him.
This past offseason, while everyone wondered what exactly Japanese phenom Yu Darvish would end up doing next, Hisashi Iwakuma quietly signed an incentive-laden one-year deal with the Mariners for an affordable $1.5 million guaranteed.
Initially, the deal looked like a major coup, as the M's were bringing in big-league talent for a rock-bottom price, yet at the same time it almost seemed too good to be true.
Going into the season, I didn't imagine he would be confused with Darvish, but I still hoped he would serve as a valuable member of the starting rotation, falling in place somewhere in the middle, right behind Jason Vargas and ahead of the Blake Beavans and Hector Noesis of the world.
Unfortunately, once spring training rolled out, it became clear that Iwakuma wasn't quite ready. However, understanding that a time for adjustment is often needed for players transitioning from Japan, part of me knew to keep patient.
For, you see, in a strange way I can speak from experience.
I actually made the transition a few years ago from one side of the Pacific to the other in moving to Japan for work.
When you move continents, you try to prepare by reading books, consulting websites, talking to friends and seeking out anyone with experience on the matter to provide insight.
Ultimately, though, nothing can prepare you for such a move.
Beyond the obvious things like language and food, culture shock is just as much about the things you simply never imagined as well.
For me, the first six-to-eight months were brutal, but in time it slowly started to make sense.
Explaining this is still something that proves challenging, yet it ultimately comes down to finding your comfort zone or balance.
Not to get all philosophical, but watching Iwakuma at times earlier this season left me to wonder if we were seeing a guy trying too hard to do his job, while simultaneously wondering if he'd made a terrible mistake.
Depending on how you handle the situation, it can either make or break you.
When Iwakuma was sent to the bullpen as a long reliever, I patiently waited to see if he would take this as an opportunity to rebound or simply give up.
To his credit, he slowly stepped back and, through the better part of the spring, worked hard to regain his form going from mop-up duty, to a brief stint as the accidental closer, to setup man and finally right before the All-Star Break...a starter—albeit a replacement one for an injured Kevin Millwood.
Through the ups and downs, Iwakuma held on.
To go from being elite in your own country and living a comfortable life, to risking everything to travel to the other side of the world with little to no guarantees of whether you will even make the final cut takes guts in my book.
Following the All-Star Break, Iwakuma continued to make the most of his chances, but the Tampa Bay game on July 20th was the first time I felt he could be a legitimate starter in the majors.
Over six innings, Iwakuma gave up only two runs on six hits, while only walking one and striking out seven while generally keeping cool the entire time.
In the two starts that he's split since, he hasn't quite approached double-digit strikeouts, but he has kept the M's in the game as best he can.
So what should we expect from Iwakuma for the remainder of the season?
Probably more of the same, but with hopefully a growing confidence. At this point, though, wins and losses aren't quite irrelevant, yet so long as he manages to keep the M's close each time out, I'd consider it progress.
If he holds true to form, should the Mariners try to re-sign him?
Perhaps I'm a bit biased, but if he keeps doing what he's doing right now, I'd like to see him come back. I'm not quite sure we've seen the best of him over a serious stretch and find myself curious to see how he will do the rest of the way.
You could argue his 13 strikeouts against Toronto were a fluke. Nevertheless, I believe he's capable of being the middle rotation guy we originally hoped we'd signed. A guy who can go six-plus innings each time out, give up only two-to-three runs and strike out five-to-six batters.
He's not quite the guy you want to drop everything to watch pitch, but you won't groan at the sight of him either on TV or at the ballpark.
For the Mariners, that sadly says a lot.
But wait, what about the "Big Three" and the bright future we've all been promised?
As much as I'd love to pencil them in with Felix and Vargas to fill out the 2013 starting rotation, it's just not that simple. Of the three, only Danny Hultzen would strike me as a likely candidate to leave Arizona for the M's next spring, which still leaves plenty of questions for the rest of the staff.
Does that then make Iwakuma a priority?
That remains to be seen based on his performance and that of a few other pitchers, but let's remember that Iwakuma chose Seattle and not the other way around, as is often the case when Japanese players come stateside through the posting system.
So if he can continue to piece together a strong finish, I'd say the M's would be foolish to let him walk without having a conversation to see what he's thinking and how he feels.
If he's game to give it another shot with a one-to-two-year deal and do so without breaking the bank, why not?
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