Hisashi Iwakuma's Surprise Return Caps Mariners' Surge Back to AL West Relevance

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 19, 2015

Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma listens to a question as he talks to reporters, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Seattle. Iwakuma, who has been with the Mariners since 2012, signed a new one-year contract with the team for the 2016 season. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

For a time, it looked like the Seattle Mariners had lost Hisashi Iwakuma. During that time, they had the look of a solid yet flawed team.

But then Iwakuma fell back into their laps. And now, well, surprise! What was a solid but flawed team now looks like a plain ol' solid team.

If you missed this week's Iwakuma drama, it started Thursday evening when Ken Gurnick of MLB.com reported that the veteran right-hander's three-year agreement with the Los Angeles Dodgers had hit a health-related snag. It seemed at the time like the two sides were merely going to restructure their agreement, but that's when Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto surprised us all.

He even surprised his coworkers, for that matter, announcing that the club had agreed to bring Iwakuma back at the Mariners' holiday party:

Mariners @Mariners

Jerry Dipoto delivers a special gift to the front office at the #Mariners holiday party: Kuma is back. https://t.co/8Bo8Y93ub2

The agreement Iwakuma made with the Dodgers called for him to make $45 million. The Mariners aren't taking as big of a risk. As reported by Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, Iwakuma's contract is only guaranteed for 2016, with club options for 2017 and 2018. It also guarantees him only $12 million.

This doesn't sound like a bad gamble to take on a guy who was an American League Cy Young contender in 2013 and has only "regressed" to post a 3.53 ERA across 48 starts in two seasons since. And though there's obviously a question about Iwakuma's health, the Mariners aren't as hung up on it as the Dodgers apparently were.

"We understood where he was going into the offseason," said Dipoto, referring to an exit physical exam at the end of 2015, per Larry Stone of the Seattle Times. "We have every confidence that situation has not changed, and we’re comfortable moving forward.”

If Iwakuma does stay healthy, he'll occupy his usual role as Seattle's No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez. That is good, because that appeared to be the one glaring need the Mariners had before the Dodgers let the 34-year-old slip through their grasp.

"We're all thrilled. This is a big move for us," Dipoto told Greg Johns of MLB.com. "We feel like this really puts a finishing touch on what we think has been a very productive offseason."

Iwakuma's signing does indeed look like the finishing touch on Seattle's offseason. Regarding that, calling it "very productive" might actually be an understatement.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

In fact, it's surprising how productive the Mariners have managed to be this winter.

It was clear when Seattle hired Dipoto in late September that he had his work cut out for him in repairing a roster that disappointed its way to 86 losses. But how Dipoto was supposed to repair the Mariners was a good question. He was walking into a situation where he had little payroll flexibility to work with and a farm system Baseball America ranked No. 25 in MLB at the start of the year. 

As such, blockbuster trades and free-agent signings—a la the ones that had delivered Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz the prior two winters—were basically out of the question. That left Dipoto with pretty much one option—and one option only.

"I think the one that we are missing right now is just a general roster depth," he said at his introductory press conference, via ESPN.com. "The lineup needs to be a little longer, the rotation needs to be a little deeper, the bullpen needs to have more layers than it presently has."

Many twists and turns later, "depth" is exactly what Dipoto has acquired.

Aoki has a .353 OBP in three seasons.
Aoki has a .353 OBP in three seasons.Joe Nicholson/Associated Press/Associated Press

In trades, the Mariners have added right-handed starter Nathan Karns, left-handed starter Wade Miley, right-handed relievers Joaquin Benoit and Evan Scribner, center fielder Leonys Martin and first baseman Adam Lind. In addition to Iwakuma, the Mariners have also added catcher Chris Iannetta, left fielder Nori Aoki and righty reliever Steve Cishek.

That's a pretty big haul for a single team, and it looks even better that the Mariners didn't have to sacrifice much to make it happen. Apart from righty relief ace Carson Smith, the Mariners' trades didn't take away anything they figure to miss. Each of the club's free-agent contracts, meanwhile, is low-risk.

Best of all, though, is how none of this has been Dipoto adding depth simply for the sake of adding depth. Everything he's done has been with a purpose.

On the mound, it doesn't look like the Mariners are going to need Hernandez and Iwakuma to carry the rotation again. Karns and Miley aren't great pitchers, but they figure to at least be solid innings-eaters. With them in tow, Johns of MLB.com notes that Seattle's rotation looks a lot deeper:

Greg Johns @GregJohnsMLB

To everyone trying to figure out rotation now among Felix, Kuma, Miley, Walker, Karns, Paxton ... remember, things happen. Depth is good.

Depth was also a problem in Seattle's bullpen, which sputtered to a 4.15 ERA that ranked 25th in MLB.

After that, swapping out Smith for Benoit, Scribner and Cishek doesn't sound like such a bad idea. Benoit has been largely dominant over the last three seasons, posting a 1.98 ERA. Scribner just posted an MLB-best 16.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015. Cishek suffered through a rough patch for a while there, but he showed signs of life in posting a 2.31 ERA down the stretch with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Elsewhere, the other pieces Dipoto has acquired fill more specific needs left over from 2015.

Lind has posted an .842 OPS over the last three seasons.
Lind has posted an .842 OPS over the last three seasons.Fred Vuich/Associated Press

Lind should help the Mariners avoid another modest .681 OPS at first base. Iannetta should help them avoid another hideous .208 OBP at catcher. After the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in Seattle's lineup posted OBPs in the low .300s, Aoki's on-base talent should upgrade the top of the order. Lastly, Martin's glove is an easy upgrade for what was terrible center field defense.

Now, understand that we're not looking at an elite team. FanGraphs' WAR projections for 2016 peg the Mariners as roughly a middle-of-the-road team. When you remember Cano and Hernandez are coming off less-than-awesome seasons and Cruz is Seattle's only elite bat, that sounds fair enough.

Look again, though, and you'll notice the only AL West team with a higher WAR projection is the Houston Astros. I would also argue that WAR projections can underrate teams that aren't necessarily great on paper but are constructed in a coherent way. These Mariners have that kind of vibe.

This is to say that, though they're not necessarily favorites, the Mariners have bought themselves a fighting chance in the AL West. That's a credit to Dipoto, who walked into a difficult job and has probably surpassed expectations with how he's dealt with it.

Of course, he does owe the Dodgers at least some credit for that. Without them, finding the finishing touch for his offseason would have been much more difficult.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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