The re-signing of Hisashi Iwakuma by the Seattle Mariners has some similarities to Aaron Sele’s return that led to the franchise’s 116-win 2001 season.
We may never know for certain if the Mariners would have still traded for Wade Miley had they known that Hisashi Iwakuma was going to return to the fold.
But what we do know now is that Jerry Dipoto is as nimble as he is frenetic. When Iwakuma unexpectedly was thrust back on the market this week, the Mariners’ new general manager greeted the news exactly as he should have: as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than an unfortunate piece of timing to be lamented.
And so, add another name to the heaping pile of new and old players brought into, or back to, the ballclub by Dipoto. When the Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t like something they saw in Iwakuma’s physical, they tried to renegotiate the reported three-year, $45 million deal they had agreed to on the eve of the winter meetings two weeks ago.
That’s when the Mariners swooped in and signed Iwakuma to a one-year deal with a couple of vesting options. They’ll figure out the logistics of the rotation later. The cogent point is that an area of the team that looked alarmingly shallow now has some heft, and a few more options for new manager Scott Servais.
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At his news conference Friday, Iwakuma said, “I felt love, passion and needed here more than anything else, and that’s why I’m here.”
But he had to make some financial concessions to make it happen. The Dodgers’ doubt apparently cost Iwakuma about $33 million in guaranteed money, though he can gain all of it back, and even a little more, by staying healthy and productive for three years.
The Mariners, meanwhile, had to get ownership to sign off on the bump in payroll that Iwakuma’s $10 million contract for 2016, plus possible incentives, will bring. Dipoto said that it took CEO Howard Lincoln “30 seconds” to give his blessing, and soon Iwakuma was back without having ever left.
The first burning question, of course, is what makes the Mariners think Iwakuma is healthy when the Dodgers apparently didn’t think so (or else had second thoughts about the deal and used Iwakuma’s health as their ticket out. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened.).
Mariners assistant GM Jeff Kingston said Friday the Mariners are “very comfortable with (Iwakuma’s) physical condition.” Dipoto elaborated, saying that their accumulated knowledge of Iwakuma’s health, bolstered by an exit physical exam after the 2015 season, satisfied them that Iwakuma will be ready to pitch.
“It’s simple,’’ Dipoto said. “We understood where he was going into the offseason. We have every confidence that situation has not changed, and we’re comfortable moving forward.”
Something very similar happened in 2000, when free-agent pitcher Aaron Sele agreed to a four-year, $29 million deal with the Orioles and even went to Baltimore for the news conference. But Orioles owner Peter Angelos became concerned about the long-term health of Sele’s shoulder, and tried to restructure the deal. Instead, Sele called the Mariners back, signed a two-year, $15 million contract, and proceeded to go 32-15 over the next two seasons.
“This was like a star falling out of the sky,’’ Pat Gillick, then the Mariners’ general manager, said after the new deal was announced — words that were echoed, in slightly different form, by Dipoto.
The second burning question is who will be the odd man out of the Mariners’ rotation from the group that, until Friday, was written in stone: Felix Hernandez, Miley, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Nathan Karns.
Dipoto’s response was that it’s a superfluous question. Every team needs all the starters it can get, he said, and this new depth just ensures that the Mariners will be better equipped to endure the challenges of the long, unforgiving season.
“I would tell you I want eight or 10 (starting candidates),’’ Dipoto said.
The third burning question is whether Dipoto would have made some of his other deals had he known that Iwakuma was coming back.
In chaos theory — and heaven knows the Mariners have bordered on chaos over the past six frenetic weeks — the “butterfly effect” is the phenomenon whereby a minor change in circumstances can cause a large change in outcome.
No question the Mariners’ trade for Miley, which involved sending reliever Carson Smith and starter Roenis Elias to the Boston Red Sox for Miley and reliever Jonathan Aro, was a direct reaction to their belief they had lost Iwakuma.
“That first night in Nashville (for the winter meetings) is really when we got to work on how do we fill that spot, that void left by Iwakuma,’’ Kingston said. “That’s when we got aggressive on the trade market. Obviously, we traded for Wade Miley, thinking that was filling Iwakuma’s spot. We also signed Steve Cishek, added Adam Lind, re-allocated those payroll dollars.”
That necessitated the request to ownership for additional money. But it also was a classic example of the butterfly effect in action. Yet Dipoto would not concede he would have done it any differently.
“We’ve built a rotation that works for us,’’ he said. “We’re very happy with the way it lines up.”
And now Dipoto’s massive makeover truly appears to be over, except for some minor tweaks. The Mariners hope it works out as well as that 2000 offseason, Gillick’s first after inheriting a Mariners team that went 79-83 in 1999.
None of Gillick’s many moves was particularly sexy — Seattle’s top free-agent acquisitions were John Olerud and Sele, and his other moves were seemingly complimentary, signing reliever Arthur Rhodes, utility man Mark McLemore, outfielder Stan Javier and a mysterious Japanese closer, Kazuhiro Sasaki. They also picked up center fielder Mike Cameron in a painful trade of Ken Griffey Jr.
Amazingly, the Mariners hit on all of them, won 91 games and made the playoffs. The following season, after letting Alex Rodriguez walk, they won a record 116 games and grabbed the American League West title — their last playoff berth, some 15 years ago and counting.
It’s asking a lot to expect a repeat of that scenario, of course. But the Iwakuma signing, a star that fell out of the sky for the Mariners, is nothing but a positive, no matter how it altered their universe.