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January 5, 2012 at 8:40 PM

“The Bear” has arrived in Seattle and Mariners hope he can be a horse as well

The nickname of new Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma is “Kuma” which translates to “The Bear” in Japanese. Wherever he goes in Japan, a bear symbol usually follows, whether it’s fans holding up placards or team billboards or on t-shirts.
So, expect to see quite a bit of bear symbology taking place at Safeco Field this summer.
On the Mariners front, they hope he’s a horse as well. As in workhorse.
In fact, the entire contract is structured around that being the case. If Iwakuma can pitch 200 innings and make 30 starts, he’ll take home $4.9 million, which is more than other teams were offering him, some over multiple years.
It’s also quite a bit less than the Oakland A’s were offering over multiple seasons a year ago, but a shoulder injury in the interim raised some concerns.
“I think that it serves both parties’ best interests,” Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said of the contract on a conference call with reporters earlier tonight. “I know that he wants to pitch here in the United States. I know he’s enjoyed his short time here in Seattle. He’s very familiar with the organization. And I do think he would like to establish himself here in the States and see what happens.”
Photo Credit: AP

Iwakuma was on the conference call as well and insisted to reporters, through an interpreter, that this was about more than money.
As we told you earlier, he flew to Seattle with his wife in mid-December and took in some of the city’s sights over a period of four or five days. Some of that time was spent scouting out homes to live in and schools for the couple’s daughter (they had a second child born just a couple of months ago, but the oldest one is now primary school age).
They dined out one night with Zduriencik and came away impressed by how serious he was about bringing Iwakuma to Seattle. Given that and how well they got to know the city during their limited stay here, they felt enough of a comfort level to choose the M’s over about five other serious suitors.
Iwakuma went through a difficult time last year after the A’s paid a $19.1 million posting fee and then failed to reach a deal with him. The pitcher switched agents after the collapse in talks, signing up with Paul Cobbe of Sosnick-Cobbe Sports this past summer.
Cobbe told me tonight that it was important for his team to give Iwakuma a first-hand feel for the negotiations. They flew him to the United States in October and he spent time working out at a complex in Tempe, Ariz. where other elite athletes train. They had his shoulder tested by doctors and had the results ready for interested teams.
Later on, when teams got more serious, they had Iwakuma take physicals with them just to soften their apprehension about his arm. He took his Seattle physical over two days during the trip here in December.
“We felt it was very important for him to meet with teams face to face so he could see what was going on and what they were saying about him,” Cobbe said. “We wanted him to have more direct involvement in the talks so that they knew what he wanted and he could hear from them what they were looking for.”
Things were not so direct between Iwakuma and the A’s a year ago.
Iwakuma said tonight that the firsthand meeting with Zduriencik made all the difference.
“Seattle really wanted to get me,” Iwakuma said. “That was the most important thing.”
Iwakuma did not speak to Ichiro during the talks to ask him about Seattle. The pair teamed together during the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and Iwakuma said he is very much looking forward to meeting the leadoff hitter in Arizona again this spring and playing with him in Seattle.
As far as those he did seek advice from ahead of time, one of them is his father-in-law, Koju Hirohashi, a former 11-year veteran of the Japanese League who recently has been the equivalent of farm director for Iwakuma’s team over there. The pair apparently talk a lot about Iwakuma’s upcoming major league foray, with Hirohashi providing a great degree of counsel.
So, we’ll see where this goes. Zduriencik is hoping some of Iwakuma’s professional experience pays off despite his lack of big league time. He hopes the slight drop in velocity on Iwakuma’s fastball is offset by his command and low walk rate.
Zduriencik said he’ll continue looking at other veteran starters the Mariners have spoken with this winter to see where things are at. But right now, the rotation looks pretty full between Felix Hernandez, Pineda, Iwakuma, Jason Vargas and perhaps Blake Beavan.
If anyone else comes in, look for either a minor league deal or a potential trade.
Expect to see Munenori Kawasaki become the third Japanese invite to spring training when he is given a minor league deal any day now. The Mariners and infielder Kawasaki have already agreed to a deal and it’s just a matter of formally announcing it.

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