Seattle Mariners: Will Hisashi Iwakuma help land Shohei Ohtani?

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 20: Starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 20: Starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma /
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The Seattle Mariners signing of Hisashi Iwakuma to a minor league contract and invitation to spring training could help them land Shohei Ohtani.

After letting Hisashi Iwakuma go to free agency in early November, the Seattle Mariners recently signed him to a minor league contract with an invitation to big-league camp in February. Iwakuma has been an effective pitcher for the Mariners for most of the last six seasons, but a shoulder injury limited him to just six starts in 2017.

Those six starts came at the beginning of the year and resulted in a 4.35 ERA that didn’t really show how much Iwakuma struggled. His FIP was 6.42 and he had the lowest strikeout rate and highest walk rate of his career. He also allowed more home runs per nine innings than in any other season. He was put on the disabled list in May.

While on the DL, Iwakuma worked hard to make it back. He had two rehab starts in June, tried cortisone shots, and injections of platelet rich plasma. In late September, he had arthroscopic surgery. He’s hoping to be ready by the start of the season, but the Mariners can’t count on him until he proves he’s healthy. Iwakuma posted on his Instagram page that he was happy to be back with the Mariners:

"It’s honored to sign with the Seattle Mariners for the next season. Mariners offered me a contract even when I was still in early rehab. I also appreciate all the Mariners staff that helped me rehab after the season. I signed a minor league deal until I recover well but I will definitely come back and contribute to win for the Mariners. Me and my family love Mariners and the city of Seattle so we’re happy to stay here!” With huge gratitude in my heart, I will do my best on rehab to come back!Thank you!"

After using 17 different starting pitchers last season, the Mariners would be glad to have Iwakuma back in the rotation. He doesn’t have to be the guy who averaged 171 innings with a 3.39 ERA in his first five seasons. Even if he’s more of a back-end starter than the number two starter he was previously, that’s still useful to a team that has slots to fill in the rotation. Whether he’ll be healthy enough to be a number four or number five is another question.

Last year, Iwakuma’s fastball averaged 85 mph, which is about five miles per hour down from his first season in Seattle in 2012. He’s also seen his ground ball rate drop, with more hitters getting the ball in the air off of him. In his first four seasons with Seattle, he induced ground balls 50 percent of the time. The last two years, that’s dropped to around 41 percent of the time. More balls in the air mean more go over the fence.

Iwakuma’s projection at Fangraphs is not rosy, which isn’t surprising for a pitcher who will be 37 years old and has a fastball in the upper 80s. Fangraphs projects him to have a 4.93 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 66 innings over 11 starts. That performance would be slightly above replacement level (0.4 WAR, per Fangraphs).

Iwakuma is a great guy and it’s nice that he’ll have a chance to continue his career in Seattle. An added benefit is that having Iwakuma on the roster could be another selling point in the Mariners’ quest to sign Japanese free agent Shohei Ohtani. Every team in baseball would love to sign Ohtani and the Mariners are making a big push for the two-way player.

The Mariners have already acknowledged their strong interest in Ohtani and they have a good history with players coming over from Japan, including Iwakuma. Ohtani’s agent recently sent a memo to all 30 MLB teams with specific requests:

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  • How does the team evaluate Ohtani’s talent as a pitcher and hitter?
  • What are the team’s player development, medical training, and player performance philosophies and facilities?
  • Describe the team’s minor league and spring training facilities.
  • What resources are available for Ohtani’s cultural assimilation into the team’s city?
  • What is the team’s vision for how Ohtani could integrate into the team’s organization?
  • Why is the team a desirable place for Ohtani to play?

Iwakuma could help with those last three bullet points. He’s been in Seattle for six years so he can help with Ohtani’s cultural assimilation into the city and with his integration into the team’s organization. Iwakuma can also provide a first-hand account on why Seattle would be a desirable place for Ohtani to play.

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The Ohtani sweepstakes can begin as soon as Friday. Once he’s posted, teams have 21 days to sign him. Some leading contenders have emerged, including the Mariners, but it’s impossible to know what the 23-year-old baseball star will do. Signing Iwakuma to a minor league deal may not have a big influence on Ohtani’s decision, but every little bit helps.