Kenji Johjima's Exit Opens Many Doors For Seattle Mariners

Casey McLainSenior Analyst IOctober 20, 2009

ARLINGTON, TX - JULY 31:  Catcher Kenji Johjima #2 of the Seattle Mariners on July 31, 2009 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

When Kenji Johjima opted out of his contract, it was very obvious that the Mariners had ultimately experienced addition by subtraction.

Johjima is a good teammate by most accounts, though his pitchers were frustrated by his pitch selection approach behind the plate. He was also a pretty good offensive player, though he’d regressed considerably in the past two seasons.

But by losing the weight of Johjima’s two years and $16 million, the team has more financial freedom than they had just last week. They can now likely go out and replace Johjima’s 2008 salary with Russell Branyan, and be in the same position as they were two days ago in terms of 2010 salary commitments, but with the slugger on board.

Also, presuming Johjima doesn’t have a burning fire in his heart to destroy the Mariners, he may be one of the best ambassadors the team could ask for in Japan. Johjima was a much-celebrated star in Japan, and while he didn’t achieve the same stardom in the United States, an amicable exit should speak volumes in terms of the Mariners standing among Japanese free agents.

Since Johjima came to the United States the Mariners have been mentioned as serious candidates for top Japanese free agents like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kosuke Fukudome, and Hiroki Kuroda. They’ve lost out on each of those free agents, though it is unclear perhaps if they lost out as a result of lack of interest or if finances and team interest played a larger role.

If it was a result of lack of interest, Johjima may be able to woo some free agents west upon their departure from Japan.

Yu Darvish is primed to be the top free agent to come to the Major Leagues since Matsuzaka. Though he’s battled shoulder and back pain throughout the 2009 season with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and is in no hurry to come to the United States, if he does he’ll still probably surpass Matsuzaka’s $100-plus million commitment for five years of service.

Even if the Darvish idea is far-fetched, and Branyan chooses to leave for more money or a change of scenery, the Mariners have a lot of financial flexibility moving forward.

The team may be looking for a longer term solution at both shortstop and third base, where Jack Wilson, Jack Hannahan, and Bill Hall could spend time next year (assuming Wilson’s option is exercised). But with their added flexibility, the team may be able to make a run at Chone Figgins, who can play just about any position besides pitcher and catcher.

Figgins figures to cash in a long term deal, though, and perhaps he’s too expensive for the Mariners taste.

When Jeff Clement was pulled from the lineup Mariner blogs started buzzing about a possible trade for Tampa Bay Rays farmhand Reid Brignac. Brignac is a left-handed hitting shortstop with an impressive frame, improving defensive skills and power potential. Most importantly, Brignac will likely be able to stick at shortstop for a half-dozen years or so.

But shortstops like that don’t grow on trees, nor are they acquired at bargain price tags.

The Rays face some tough financial decisions this offseason. Most notably, the team is likely looking to move the $9 million salary that is owed to Pat Burrell in 2010, to the point that they’ve reportedly discussed a swap of Burrell for trouble Cubs outfielder Milton Bradley.

They’ve also got a log-jam in the infield. Between Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist, the team may have struck gold on two late-20s players for their middle-infield. Evan Longoria, perhaps the team’s best offensive player, is well-rooted at third base, where he excels both with the bat and the glove.

And while a trade that included Carlos Pena, the Rays first baseman, who makes $10.25 million in 2010 would be more favorable than one with Burrell, it would be far less likely.

With Brignac on board, it may negate any need to retain Wilson, which would again save the team nearly $8 million. So realistically, if a trade like that occurred, the Mariners could have improved their offense at shortstop without sacrificing a ton of defense, while bringing on Burrell, who struggled to adjust to the American league last season after spending the rest of his career playing for the Philadelphia Phillies. If Burrell was even an equal to Ken Griffey Jr. or Mike Sweeney, he’d be an essential wash in terms of salary when paired with Brignac.

Brignac may be worth more in the trade market than the Mariners are willing to spend. He’s got very little major league service time, which means he’ll be under team control for quite a while, something which has gained value in recent years.

There are other, less expensive options that could improve the Mariners though.

There was speculation that the Mariners would trade for J.J. Hardy last year, the Brewers defensively-gifted shortstop. Hardy was amidst a down year, and his heir apparent Alcides Escobar figured to take his spot if Hardy was traded. The Brewers sought pitching in return, and after falling out of contention before the trade deadline, talks calmed down considerably. But there has been speculation that Hardy could be moved this offseason.

Unlike Brignac, Hardy is only under team control for one more season, and would probably be traded in conjunction with signing a contract extension.

Another option is Felix Pie. While fans may like to see Michael Saunders be given a chance to start in left field, Pie may be a better option now and moving forward. Pie is the fourth outfielder in Baltimore, an outfield which already forced Luke Scott into the designated hitter position.

Pie doesn’t figure to beat out Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, or Nick Markakis for an outfield spot, and unless the team chooses to move Scott to first base in the wake of a potential Aubrey Huff departure, Pie probably won’t be the team’s designated hitter.

The Orioles have flirted with a trade that involved Brian Roberts for some time now. Roberts is entering the second year of a four-year, $40 million contract and apart from an club option with a $1 million buyout for Melvin Mora, is the team’s only long-term commitment to a player over 30 years old.

Pie posted a .266/.326/.437 line last year in 281 plate appearances, and a 15.6 UZR/150 in left field and a 5.6 UZR/150 in center field.

Pie is under team control through 2013.

Regardless of how they use the flexibility, the Mariners caught a huge break when Johjima left, and added another dimension to what should be an exciting offseason.