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December 1, 2011 at 6:07 AM

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik says he’s “aware” of Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki, but will treat like any free agent

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NOTE: I’ll be going on KJR AM 950’s Mitch in the Morning show at 7 a.m. PT today.
Last night, Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki of the champion Softbank Hawks announced at a press conference that he was becoming a free agent. Then, in an interesting twist, he told Japanese media that he wants to play in the major leagues, but only for the Mariners so he could team with Ichiro.
Not everyday the Mariners are flat out handed a free agent with zero competition. Especially one from Japan who won’t require a posting fee.
But would the Mariners want him?
I phoned GM Jack Zduriencik shortly after Kawasaki’s announcement to gauge where he’s at on this. Zduriencik told me he hasn’t had any conversations with Kawasaki’s camp, mainly because he only became a free agent last night.
But Zduriencik did say that he’s “aware” of Kawasaki and will proceed accordingly with him as he would any free agent in search of the backup shortstop he’s looking for to slot in behind Brendan Ryan.
“We are aware of all the opportunities out there, both internationally and back here,” he said. “We’re going to keep all options open at this stage, then let the dominoes start to fall and see where we’re at.”
One thing playing in Kawasaki’s favor is that he said he’s willing to take a minor league deal if he has to. (Somebody had best get this guy an American agent, fast).


All kidding aside, a minor league invite could be the best route for Kawasaki to take if he truly wants to play in Seattle and — as he said at his press conference — will decline all other offers. At age 30, his hitting style has closely resembled that of Ichiro. He’s been described as mainly a slap-hitting type who can bunt to get on base fairly routinely and has led the Japanese League in stolen bases. He hits for average and gets on base in the mid-.300s — though, like Ichiro, that OBP is largely hit-generated and would be susceptible to a serious downturn if he ever stopped hitting in the majors.
He shows very little true power, but is an above average defender at shortstop with very good range.
The Mariners, as mentioned, have Ryan under contract one more season. They also have Zduriencik first-round draft pick Nick Franklin in Class AA, though he needs more work on his switch-hitting and his defense before he’ll be ready for the big leagues. That likely won’t happen until at least 2013 beyond any September call-up situation.
Carlos Triunfel is still in AAA and said to have improved his shortstop defense by a fair margin over the past year. The only question is whether he’ll be able to hit the way he did early in his pro career. He’s still only 21, but we’ll see whether he survives the winter trade season before speculating about his future.
At the major league level, the Mariners have two guys who project as super utility types if they don’t get traded this winter: Kyle Seager and Chone Figgins. There’s an excellent chance at least one of the two will be gone by spring training, but they also represent competition for Kawasaki if he’d want to make the team.
The Mariners also recently re-signed Luis Rodriguez to a minor league deal, so he’d also be trying to make the team as a backup infielder.
Adam Kennedy signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers yesterday, so he’s no longer in the backup infielder mix — though he didn’t play shortstop, so would never have been in direct competition with Kawasaki.
In the end, a lot of what would have to happen for Kawasaki to make the team would be for the Mariners to figure out how his Japanese League numbers would translate to the majors. It worked real well for Ichiro and his skillset, proving skeptics wrong when he first came over back in 2001.
But the transition is not always universal.
Certainly, based on his long Japanese career, Kawasaki’s numbers there would be a useful addition in Seattle if he could carry them over. But not everybody is Ichiro, a future Hall of Fame player. And not everyone will be able to sustain a .300 batting average in the majors for most of their career in order to support an OBP that lacks fuel from any decent type of walk rate.
Still, if his defense is as good as advertised, this could be a guy the Mariners would take a flyer on. That’s Kawasaki’s first challenge. He needs to get his foot in the door here.
I’m sure that Ichiro — who played with Kawasaki at the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009 — will have some advice to give the Mariners on this subject. I’m told by friends in the Japanese media that he and Kawasaki have indeed spoken about the Mariners and what playing there would be like.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins

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