We’re not at full-blown rumor stage yet, but be prepared to hear the name Hisashi Iwakuma connected to the Twins sometime this offseason. The team has definitely shown interest in the Japanese righthander in the past.
Last year the Athletics paid nearly $20 million for Iwakuma. Not to sign him to a contract – that was what they had to pay just for the right to talk to him. They failed to sign the contract, so Iwakuma went back to the Rakuten Golden Eagles. This fall, he’s a free agent, so any team that wants to offer him a contract can do so and keep the $20 million. It’s a tempting proposition; who wouldn’t want a pitcher so good that the organization behind Moneyball was willing to throw a truckload of money at him?
The Twins finished second place in the bidding for Iwakuma, but they offered just $7.7 million. Iwakuma apparently wanted $12 million per year from Oakland, while the A’s were offering about $5 million. If Iwakuma still demands $12 million, it is highly doubtful that the Twins would talk to him. For that amount, they could probably sign a proven Major League hurler like Edwin Jackson.
Iwakuma would fit in with the type of low-90s, groundball pitchers that the Twins like to hoard. He uses a fastball, slider, curveball, splitter, and a Shuuto, which is the Japanese equivalent of a two seamer. Apparently, he used to be more of a flamethrower before a 2006 injury, but he can still dial it up to 93 on a regular basis, which puts him ahead of Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey in the velocity department. For what it’s worth, Iwakuma managed 7.0 K/9IP through 2010. You can find his career numbers here. Baseball Reference hasn’t posted his 2011 stats yet, but I believe those will be up sometime after the NPB season ends. A video of Iwakuma’s delivery style – complete with riveting Japanese commentary – is here.
Iwakuma might have an advantage in his first couple of seasons in the Major Leagues, because hitters would not be familiar with him. People can argue over whether the Japanese Leagues have the same talent level as the Majors, but one thing that is clear is that they use a different style of play. When a hitter has never faced a pitcher before, the advantage goes to the pitcher. And being new and mysterious can be a huge advantage on the mound. For comparison, look at the first two seasons Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka had in America. They both put up pretty good numbers, as American hitters were thrown off balance. After a few years, both pitchers became much easier to hit.
As you may be aware, the Twins have had a recent negative experience signing a Japanese player. It would be utterly foolish to shun a country of 126 million people just because it produced one terrible shortstop. But at the same time, the Twins’ failure to anticipate how Nishioka would transistion to American baseball creates some real questions about how good their Japanese scouting operation is. Hopefully, if they’re scouting Iwakuma, they have better scouts watching him than they did for Nishioka. If they do take a chance on this pitcher, they have to make sure they really want him. Because a second botched international signing in two years would really damage the team.
If I had to guess, I’d say there’s only about a 5% chance the Twins will end up signign Iwakuma. He would need to come way down in his asking price for the team to take a chance on him. And there’s no telling how much money the 29 other teams would be willing to pay for a player who could potentially draw big crowds.