For the last few years, Hisashi Iwakuma has been a consistent overachiever for the Seattle Mariners. He drew huge hype and intrigue after being posted in 2010, but couldn’t reach agreement with the Oakland Athletics due to contract demands. He went back to Japan, hurt himself, and ended up latching on with the M’s on a cheap deal – followed by a much-deserved extension, of course, once the team saw he was healthy and amazing.
Over his time in Seattle Iwakuma has been a sturdy #2 starter who sometimes errs on the side of acedom – he was a Cy Young runner-up, after all. He’s a popular figure in Seattle, the no-walks old guy who anchors an always-entertaining rotation. But the Mariners are going nowhere this year, and Iwakuma’s contract is up at the end of the year. And he’s 35 years old. You know where I’m going with this.
Maybe the Mariners are already considering dealing Iwakuma. Maybe they’re just one more loss away from deciding that that’s the course to take. He’s a short-term asset who should be well into his decline years. He’s missed heaps of time with injury this year and has been more bad than good when he’s been able to take the field. All of these factors could make him a guy the Mariners don’t need to keep.
The same factors – age, results, health – that might make Iwakuma expendable to the Mariners could also serve to diminish his value on the trade market. In fact, that might be the biggest argument against trading Iwakuma – if other teams teams don’t see him as a number two starter who could pitch valuable playoff innings, then what’s the point of trading him? Maybe the M’s make a late push. Easier to do that with Iwakuma than with the underwhelming players they’d get unloading him to a half-interested contender.
What’s working for Iwakuma is his track record. He’s pretty much never been anything but awesome – all throughout his time in Japan he was an ace, then after taking a half-season in Seattle to get his feet wet he jumped into the rotation and quickly became one of the American League’s top starters. His season got off to a rough start that could be chalked up to injury. His first start back he was just rusty. And since then he’s been himself.
Teams with interest in Iwakuma probably aren’t freaking out about his small 2015 sample, especially because his recent work has been his best. The health, of course, might be another story. This is a guy who just missed a couple months, and it’s not like pitchers get more durable as they age. Some of these guys throw into their forties, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Iwakuma is pushing up against the boundary of how old pitchers can get while reasonably expecting to be any good.
So Iwakuma is likely to pitch better the rest of the year than he has to this point. He’s surrounded by questions about health and decline, both of which seem destined to drag his value down (especially as the starting pitching market continues to grow without any deals getting done). If he’s going to be undervalued by the market, why bother? It’s not like he has nothing to offer the Mariners over the next two months, even if the team is desperately far from a playoff spot.
To me, the most compelling reason to keep Iwakuma is because he might be needed again next year. All the factors that conspire to hold down his value on the summer trade market should do the same when he hits free agency this offseason. Iwakuma could be a possible bargain this winter due to his age, health, and poor early results. If the M’s hold onto him, they get two huge things: an exclusive negotiation window and potential player-team good will.
Yes, a traded rent-a-player can turn around and re-sign with his old team. This rarely happens. Keeping a guy through a season sure seems like it gives that club an edge in retaining his services through free agency. If the M’s want to convince Iwakuma to come back next season, they probably shouldn’t send him out of town this season.
Should the Seattle Mariners trade Hisashi Iwakuma? Only if they’re done with him, and only if there’s an offer out there that represents fair value. He’s raised a lot of eyebrows this year, but there’s plenty of reason to believe that he will be a highly effective major league pitcher going forward. If the team knows for sure that he won’t be back in 2016 and there’s a good offer then sure, trade him. Otherwise he’s a guy worth holding on to, if not extending before he even makes it to the free market.