(Kenji Johjima is congratulated by Bill Hall after hitting a home run against Detroit in 2009. Photo by Associated Press).
What is the link between those two stories? Well, it was just about three years ago — on Oct. 18, 2009 — that Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima opted out of the final two years of his Seattle contract in order to head back to Japan. That decision saved the Mariners $15.8 million, but it’s taken until this year for them to find the kind of production from the catcher’s position Johjima gave them his first two years.
Now something similar has happened in Minnesota, where Nishioka, a huge disappointment with the Twins, today asked for and was granted a release from his contract. Nishioka was coming off a batting title and Gold Glove with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2010 when the Twins decided he was the guy to fill the void left by the trade of J.J. Hardy to Baltimore. They paid a $5.3 million transfer fee to the Marines and gave Nishioka a three-year, $9.25 million contract.
In 71 games over the past two years — just three this year — Nishioka hit .215 with no homers and 20 RBI, and as the linked blog post from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune states, “His defense was…awful.”
The Twins won’t have to pay Nishioka his $3 million salary for 2013 or a $250,000 buyout after the season. The stakes aren’t as high as they were with Johjima — who left $7.7 million on the table in 2010 and $8.1 million in 2011 — but for the small-market Twins, it’s a pretty big deal.
By happenstance, the news broke out of Japan today that Johjima, who returned to his homeland after parting ways with the Mariners and played three more seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, is going to retire after this season. And once again, he’s opting out of his contract early.Johjima has one more year left in his four-year deal with Hanshin, but he’s quoted in the linked story as saying, “I’m not a player worth 400 million yen a year.”
That’s about $5 million, by the way. It’s been an injury-riddled season for Johjima, 36, who has had issues with his left knee and right elbow and played in just 24 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. Johjima had a huge year with Hanshin in 2010 in his first season after leaving the Mariners, hitting .303 with 28 homers and 91 RBIs. But he hit .189 last year in just 38 games, and.179 this season when, as mentioned, he barely played.
In his first season with Seattle, 2006, Johjima set the American League record for hits by a rookie catcher (147) and tied the Mariners’ record for homers by a catcher (18) while hitting .291. In 2007, Johjima hit a solid .287 with 14 homers and a .755 OPS before slumping the next two seasons, partly due to injuries. The Mariners infamously gave him a three-year, $24-million contract extension on April 25, 2008, while Johjima was hitting .194 — a decision that most believe was dictated by Japanese owner Hiroshi Yamauchi .
That led to some grumbling in the clubhouse, as did the way Johjima called games. But in the two years after Johjima left, Mariners catching flailed. They ranked 13th out of 14 AL teams in OPS by their catchers in 2010 at .566 (when Rob Johnson, Adam Moore and Josh Bard held down the position), and were 11th at .616 last year, with Miguel Olivo as the primary catcher. This year, with Olivo, John Jaso and Jesus Montero splitting the time behind the plate, their OPS as a group has risen to .777, third in the American League — with top prospect Mike Zunino on the fast track to the majors.
My revisionist view is that Johjima’s first two years, at least, were better than he’s been given credit for — and that catcher is the one position that remains the most difficult transition for a Japanese player coming to MLB. I’m not sure when we’ll see another one get a chance to try it.
P.S.: Johjima was a pioneer in coming from Japan to catch, but he wasn’t the first Mariners player from Japan to opt out of his contract. Closer Kaz Sasaki did it after the 2003 season.