Yeah, So, Umm … Hisashi Iwakuma’s Back, Everyone!

*shuffles papers, discards all accounts of hating on Kuma*

I wrote the following on December 9th:

For what it’s worth, I am glad the Mariners didn’t go to a third year with Iwakuma.  I like Kuma as much as the next guy, but he can’t stay healthy to save his life.  It sucks having to count on him, only to see him miss two months every year.  Which brings up the interesting question:  would you rather have four months of a quality, ace-lite starting pitcher, or a full season with a 4th/5th starter who will be great one week, and then can’t get out of the second inning the next?  I’m torn on the subject.

It probably wasn’t the fitting eulogy that his Mariners career deserved, but his signing with the Dodgers came amid the swirling typhoon of Mariners roster moves that has been the last month and change.  I can’t write about every single little thing the Mariners do and don’t do; I’ll go insane!

Anyway, that quote was in reference to the Iwakuma vs. Wade Miley argument:  You Can Only Have One.  Well, SURPRISE!  You can have both now!  Isn’t that wonderful?

Well, we don’t quite know the contract terms, but I’m never going to quibble with the organization spending more money.  It’s not the dollars I’m interested in anyway; it’s the years.  I’m told it’s a 1-year deal with “vesting options” for 2017 and 2018.  What that means?  I have no idea.  Does it mean it’s a team option?  A mutual option?  Or, is it just a matter of Iwakuma pitching a certain number of innings or starting a certain number of games, and the options vest automatically?  I guess we’ll find out in time, but I LIKE that we’re not 100% locked in to a 3-year deal.

**UPDATE** – Looks like those options both vest if he reaches 162 innings in each of the previous seasons, or a combined 324 in both years.  Again, I don’t care about the money.

I was always going to be perfectly happy with a 1-year deal; had he just signed his qualifying offer, I wouldn’t have had a problem at all.  I would’ve been willing to even go two years guaranteed, with the assumption that one of those years would probably be lost to injury or ineffectiveness (my ability to trust the players on this team to be good for more than a single year is as bottom-of-the-barrel as it gets).  Three years just sounded like outright madness to me.  It might have worked out with the Dodgers – had he not recently failed his physical with them and had his deal revoked – but I’d attribute that more to his ability to dominate inferior National League lineups.  You can be a lesser pitcher and still do well in the N.L.  In the A.L., once you start to decline, that’s it, it’s over.

Anyway, now that the Mariners get to have their cake and eat it too, what does this mean for the starting rotation?

Well, you got your King Felix, you got your Kuma as your #2, you probably got your Miley to change things up as the 3rd starter (break up all those righties), then you got Taijuan Walker more or less locked into the 4-spot.  This is a HUGE upgrade over what we were planning on going into the season with, because now for that fifth spot (instead of trying to count on both of them to stay healthy), we’ve got James Paxton competing with Nathan Karns (with an outside shot of either Mike Montgomery and/or Vidal Nuno also bolstering our competition).  Those are four guys who I not only wouldn’t mind having around as a fifth starter, but in the case of Paxton especially, we’re talking about probably one of the most talented fifth starters in the league!  Again, health is a major issue, but even if we only get two quality months out of Paxton, we’ve still got Karns waiting in the wings, and two other decent options behind him!

Depth, is what I’m getting at.  Improved depth, but also all around improved talent at the top with Kuma’s return.  We can feel more at ease knowing this team has options and insurance behind those options.  I know we’re not talking about the greatest rotation in all of baseball or anything, but honestly I’m not worried about this unit being the team’s biggest weakness in 2016 anymore.  A rotation of Felix, Walker, Miley, Karns, and Paxton is really just a rotation of Felix and four question marks.  As a whole, I look at that unit and I think:  Walker will probably be better, but there’s still a good chance of more growing pains; Miley should be serviceable, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more than a few blow-ups; Karns has the look of a prototypical Five N’ Diver, with probably more instances of going less than four innings than going more than six; and Paxton is Paxton, who gets injured without fail.

Now?  Well, honestly, you’ve still got those same question marks, but now there’s MORE of them!  More question marks means “better”, right?  Iwakuma has a similar injury sitch as Paxton, but he’s got a MUCH higher ceiling in the short term.  If you’re confident that Felix, Miley, and Walker can stay healthy for the full year, then a round robin of Iwakuma, Paxton, and Karns for those final 64-ish starts sounds MUCH more appetizing than a round robin of Paxton, Karns, and Nuno/Montgomery.

I’m starting to get excited, guys.  Where’s that “Reasonable Expectations” post when I need it?  With what I’m banking on as a rock-solid, steady-Freddie lineup, combined with a rock-solid, deep-Streep starting rotation, the only thing we have to worry about is the ol’ bullpen.  As you’d probably expect, there’s been some recent movement in that area as well (“recent” as in sometime in the last week or so).  I’ll be looking to try to shed some light on that next week, as we cruise right on into Christmas.

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