By Brent Stecker
Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma has been one of baseball's best pitchers in 2013, a surprise considering the Japanese export was relegated to the bullpen for the start of his MLB career in 2012. He's been so surprising heading into Monday's start against Cleveland that the right-hander not only ranks in the top three in the American League in ERA (1.62), WHIP (0.78) and batting average-against (.183), but he ranks ahead of Mariners ace and former Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez in each category.
Hisashi Iwakuma ranks in the top three in the A.L. in ERA and WHIP, and could be a valuable trade piece this summer. (AP)
While Iwakuma's been blowing away hitters, the Mariners' offense is clearly in need of more run producers – something that could be acquired by trading away Iwakuma.
Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner told "Brock and Danny" last week that the Mariners will have to at least explore the option of trading the 32-year-old "Kuma" this season to bolster their offense for the future.
"If the Mariners decide that they are not ready to ... take over Texas and make a playoff run, I think there is an argument that can be made that in two months Iwakuma might be one of the most valuable trade chips you can possibly have on the market because no one is selling pitching this year," Cameron said. "In a couple of months, it is going to be an interesting decision whether or not the Mariners keep Hisashi Iwakuma or trade him for younger players."
ESPN baseball analyst and ex-MLB general manager Jim Bowden echoed those sentiments on "Bob and Groz."
"Yeah, I think you have to consider (trading Iwakuma)," he said. "I wouldn't want to. I think you've a got a nice two- or three-year run with him, and I'd love to see him and Felix and (prospects Taijuan) Walker and (Danny) Hultzen all in the same rotation, but I think you always have to listen."
Should the Mariners pull the trigger on a swap involving Iwakuma, it likely won't come until much closer to the July 31 trade deadline, when the team will have a better idea of its postseason chances.
"I think you have to see where the Mariners are at the end of July," Bowden said. "Iwakuma's gonna give you a better shot to win than anything you're going to be able to get back in return, at least for the next couple of years. Keep an open mind, but I also think Iwakuma can be a very helpful part of this team making the playoffs over the next couple of years."
Bowden is justifiably impressed with what Iwakuma has done over the last year.
"He's a 1 starter. I watched him some last year. I've seen seven of the eight (starts in 2013). This guy is a 1," Bowden said. "He pounds the zone, doesn't miss in the middle. It's just incredible to watch him. He's a strikeout-per-inning kind of guy. I just love the fact that he pounds the zone, doesn't walk anybody, he uses both sides of the plate, he changes eye level, he changes planes – He is a 1."
If the Mariners hang on to Iwakuma through the end of his contract (he's signed through 2014, though the team has a $7 million option for 2015), he could be in line for a free-agent deal similar to Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda, 38, who signed a one-year, $15 million deal after going 16-11 with a 3.32 ERA in 2012. A contract like that, coupled with Hernandez's seven-year, $175 million deal, and the expected arrivals of Walker, Hultzen and fellow top prospect James Paxton to the majors, could very well push the team to pursue a trade.
"I don't know if I see the organization wanting to give Iwakuma the kind of money he is going to get in a couple of years," Cameron said. "Are the Mariners going to want to be in a position where they are signing Iwakuma to a long-term deal with the young pitching coming?"