(Kazuhiro Sasaki is congratulated by Dan Wilson after a save in 2003. Photo by Associated Press).
Predictably, a small segment of Mariner fans is sniping about the ballclub signing Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, with another Japanese player, shortstop Munenori Kawasaki, reportedly heading to spring training on a minor-league contract.
The general complaint — often heard over the years — is that the Mariners are a haven for Japanese players because of the presence of Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi as the principal owner.
It just doesn’t hold water.
Here was a typical comment, in one of Geoff’s stories yesterday’s on the signing: “Someone should tell the Mariner’s ownership that Prince is Japanese….He’d be on the roster tomorrow…. ”
Mind you, this is not the prevalent point of view. I think most fans judge the Mariners’ moves on the player’s ability, not their nationality. And from that standpoint, it’s hard not to like the Mariners signing of Iwakuma as a low-risk move with the potential for a solid payoff. I’d rather have a guy like Iwakuma, who has some upside potential, than sign a Kevin Millwood or Jeff Francis, who have reached the stage of their career that the best they have to offer is to be an innings-eater. Not necessarily quality innings, however.
As for Kawasaki, he is coming to camp as a non-roster player, just like Luis Rodriguez, his main competition. He’s coming to compete for a utility job, most likely. It’s not worth getting too worked up over, frankly.
Their third Japanese player, a fellow named Ichiro, has become a lightning rod among Mariner fans, but this much is undeniable, I believe — over the course of his 11-year Mariner career, he’s been a tremendous asset, on balance. Yes, he’s coming off a poor year, but that follows 10 mostly great years. I think any team in baseball would have gladly taken Ichiro on their roster over the course of the decade. You could argue that the Mariners have been too deferential to Ichiro over the years — I think that’s overblown as well — but that’s an entirely different issue.
If Yamauchi was the instigator of the Mariners’ initial pursuit of Ichiro, and if their relationship helped keep him here, it seems to me that’s an advantage the Mariners were correct to exploit. That’s what teams do — exploit their advantages to get good players. The Diamondbacks signed Randy Johnson because he wanted to be close to his home in Arizona. Maybe the Marlins got Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes because they wanted to play for Ozzie Guillen. It might have helped the Angels land Vlad Guerrero, back when he was the most coveted free agent in baseball, that their owner was Hispanic and could make their case in Spanish.
It’s simply not true, however, that the Mariners have loaded up with Japanese players to an excessive extent.
Here is the entire list of Japanese players in Seattle during the Yamauchi ownership:
1996: Mac Suzuki (one game).
1998: Mac Suzuki (six games).
1999: Mac Suzuki (16 games).
2000: Kazu Sasaki
2001: Ichiro, Kazu Sasaki
2002: Ichiro, Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa
2003: Ichiro, Sasaki, Hasegawa
2004: Ichiro, Hasegawa, Maseo Kida (seven games)
2005: Ichiro, Hasegawa, Kida (one game)
2006: Ichiro, Kenji Johjima
2007: Ichiro, Johjima
2008: Ichiro, Johjima
2012: Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma, Munenori Kawasaki
That’s eight different Japanese players in 19 years. Two of them, Kida and Mac Suzuki, were bit players. Two others, Iwakuma and Kawasaki, have yet to play a game.
—Ichiro, a 10-time All-Star who won two batting titles, an MVP award and set one of the most prestigious records in the game, most hits in a single season.
—Kaz Sasaki, who still holds Seattle’s single-season saves record (45 in 2001), made two All-Star teams in four years, and was the closer on the team with the most wins in American League history.
—Kenji Johjima, whose statistics his first two years (.291/.332/.451, 18 homers, 76 RBIs in 2006, .287/.322/.433, 14 homers, 61 RBI in 2007, are positively Benchian compared to what has followed from Mariner catchers. Johjima had a .721 OPS in his four seasons from 2006 through 2009. In the two seasons that followed, M’s catchers put up an OPS of .569 in 2010, and .616 in 2011.
Yeah, pitchers didn’t seem to like throwing to him, and there were questions about how he called games. And yes, he declined precipitously his last two years. And yes, the contract extension Johjima was given in April of 2008 while he was hitting .200 is the most glaring example of ownership overstepping it’s bounds. But Johjima gave them two quality years.
—Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who was a useful setup man for four seasons, including one brilliant season in 2003 when he took over as closer, saved 16 games in 17 opportunities, had a 1.48 ERA and made the All-Star team.
Not a bad track record for their four main Japanese players (one of whom, Hasegawa, had already established himself in five seasons with the Angels before the M’s signed him as a free agent).
Here is the list of Japanese players who have made the move to MLB. It’s a long one — 44 players during Yamauchi’s ownership. That means the Mariners have passed on 36 of them — 82 percent. Meanwhile, the Mets — owned by Brooklyn-born Fred Wilpon — have had 11 different Japanese players on their roster in that span. The Dodgers have had six, the Red Sox five,
I think it’s hard to argue that the Mariners have exploited their Japanese connection for anything but positive gains.