Hisashi Iwakuma’s deal with the Dodgers unraveled due to concerns prompted by his physical. But when Seattle swooped back in and signed him to a one-year contract with options, the Mariners’ 2016 prospects brightened.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Felix Hernandez was on the golf course when he heard. Kyle Seager was chatting with his brother. James Paxton was at the gym working out, but the news only served to deflate.
In early December last year, whether by text, television or word of mouth, Mariners everywhere were informed that Hisashi Iwakuma would depart from their clubhouse after signing a 3-year, $45 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It wasn’t a complete surprise given the body of Iwakuma’s work and the depth of his new team’s pockets, but it still left teammates feeling like they had taken a fastball to the left glute.
“I was like ‘noooo!’ ’’ Hernandez said. “We need him!”
The Mariners needed quite a bit after last year’s 76-win whiff, actually. The bullpen may have best exemplified their pitching woes, but losing Kuma would have left the rotation equally flimsy.
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The 34-year-old’s 3.54 earned-run average was second among starters on the team (just behind Hernandez’s 3.53), and his 3.09 ERA after July 2 was the 10th-best in Major League Baseball. True, a strained lat muscle kept Iwakuma out from late April to early July … but is it possible his health issues will end up benefiting the M’s?
As you likely know, Iwakuma’s deal with the Dodgers unraveled due to concerns prompted by his physical. So on Dec. 17, Seattle swooped in and signed him to a one-year contract with vesting options for 2017 and 2018.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto announced the re-acquisition at a team holiday party, and, yeah — Christmas came early.
Hernandez was in Venezuela when he heard. Seager was talking to his wife. Nelson Cruz was lifting weights, but he would have been pumped no matter what.
When players found out that Iwakuma was returning, they knew they got at least a few wins better. Could you call them playoff contenders at that point?
Well, you couldn’t say for sure that they weren’t.
“I think it definitely throws us into a different category,” Paxton said. “When Kuma is healthy, he’s one of the best in the league.”
Granted, that’s a little like saying that when Seattle is sunny, it’s one of the best cities in the world. You may not get much of an argument, but gloom is still inevitable.
Between the strained lat last year, the strained tendon in his finger the year before, and the distressing Dodgers physical, it would take unabashed optimism to assume optimal health. Still, while the M’s still need a large supply of luck to make the postseason, with Iwakuma back, they don’t need a miracle.
The addition of Wade Miley solidifies the first four spots in Seattle’s rotation (as he joins Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Taijuan Walker) and prompts legitimate competition for that No. 5 slot. And if the starters pitch longer, this should help a bullpen that had the sixth-worst ERA in MLB last year.
So count the 24 guys who join Iwakuma in the locker room as grateful. But maybe not as grateful as Iwakuma himself.
“It’s a good feeling. It’s a brand new feeling for myself coming back to this team,” Iwakuma said through an interpreter. “The Mariners were the first to call me (after the Dodgers physical). They made me feel like I was needed.”
It wasn’t an act. Seattle does need this guy. Iwakuma won’t likely end up vying for team MVP honors, but he is a critical, if not essential cog.
Funny how general managing works, isn’t it? You can spend 150 hours a week scouting, signing or swapping players, and the biggest deal of your offseason comes on a twist of fate.
Nothing you can do but embrace it, though. The Mariners certainly have.
Last month, when asked about Iwakuma’s return, M’s skipper Scott Servais smiled and he said that he was “doing back flips” when he found out.
Seattle’s season, meanwhile, may have just flipped forward.