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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 18, 2012 at 10:13 AM

Never mind John Jaso; Free Hasashi Iwakuma

iwakumaap.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

I’ve notice a growing “Free John Jaso” movement on the internet, urging the Mariners to get more playing time for the catcher (a sentiment that actually dates back to 2010 with the Rays). Hard to argue — Jaso has started twice, and made positive contributions each time. In his first game, he had a triple and a game-winning single, and in his next start — last night — he drove in three and ripped a two-run homer. That’s called maximizing your opportunities.

But the liberation movement that needs to gain steam is “Free Hisashi Iwakuma.” I can’t really figure out what the Mariners’ plan is with Hisashi, who seemed targeted for the rotation when he signed a one-year deal in early January. Iwakuma received a $1.5-million base salary with a chance to earn $4.9 million if he reached award bonuses and incentives based on starts and innings pitched. Unless there’s an award for the last player to enter a major-league game, those aren’t looking so good right now.

Iwakuma had a shaky spring, but the Mariners kept saying that the right-hander, who missed two months with shoulder problems last year, just needed to build up his arm strength, But when Eric Wedge named his rotation, it didn’t include Iwakuma. And after he was hit hard in the Mariners’ final exhibition game in Japan — six runs in four innings to Yomiuri — Iwakuma was one of three inactive Mariner players for the two games that counted against the A’s in Tokyo.

I wrote this at the time:

“Iwakuma had already been moved from starting to the bullpen, and I read this decision to inactivate him — in front of a Japanese audience, no less — is an indication that the Mariners don’t have faith in Iwakuma right now to get hitters out.

“It will be interesting to see what happens to Iwakuma when the Mariners have to re-set their roster for the resumption of the season in Oakland, April 6. Noesi and Millwood will be placed on the 25-man roster, but I wonder if they’ll do so right away with Iwakuma. The Mariners have been saying that Iwakuma needs to regain his arm strength following his shoulder injury last year; pure speculation, but I wonder if that would open door for a DL berth early in the season while he does so.

Instead, however, the Mariners opted to put Iwakuma on the active roster when the season resumed in Oakland. This happened after an encouraging appearance in one of the post-Japan exhibition games in Arizona. In that game, Iwakuma allowed one hit over three innings against Colorado on April 3, a performance overshadowed by a Jamie Moyer-Felix Hernandez matchup). Wedge said afterward of Iwakuma’s performance, “I thought he had better life on his ball today. He had more action on the ball…. I thought he threw the ball as well as we’ve seen him through this spring.”

That’s the last time, however, we’ve seen Iwakuma pitch in a game — two weeks and one day ago. My conclusion hasn’t changed: The Mariners still don’t have faith in Iwakuma to get hitters out. He’s warmed up once that I can recall but didn’t get into the game in Texas. Tom Wilhelmsen has already appeared seven times, Steve Delabar and Brandon League six times. But no Iwakuma. Even Lucas Luetge has been in four games. Often, it’s the Rule 5 player who gets stuck in the role of the invisible man on a team, but Luetge has earned Wedge’s trust to the extent that he’s appeared in key situations, while Iwakuma continues to sit in the bullpen.

The Mariners have essentially chosen to play the last 10 games with a 24-man roster, which is curious but not unprecedented, of course. Who can ever forget reliever Jeff Gray, who pitched on May 29 last year and didn’t appear again until June 11, and not again until July 11, all while on the active roster.

I can’t remember if there was a “Free Jeff Gray” movement, but I, for one, am wondering how soon it will be until the Mariners finally unveil Hasashi Iwakuma.

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