Hisashi Iwakuma and the Braves: A possible fit?

I'd like to start this piece by talking a bit about Tim Hudson. I was quite downtrodden after seeing the injury sustained by Huddy on a freak play, in which Hudson stood too far to the middle of the bag while covering first after a ball hit to the right side off the bat of Eric Young Jr. I won't go into detail, as I'm sure that most, if not all, of you have seen the gruesome injury. It upsets me to know that his career as an Atlanta Brave (and possibly as a professional baseball player) might end after something as fluky and painful as the fractured ankle suffered by Hudson. Number 15 has been a model of consistency during his Atlanta career, achieving in 7 out of 9 seasons in Atlanta an ERA+ of 110 or better. By all accounts a charitable and great human being, I'll miss Huddy's contributions to the Braves, both on the mound as a fierce competitor and as the effervescent goofball in the clubhouse and dugout. Also, I'd like to mention Eric Young Jr. I'm almost certain that Young is having some trouble sleeping tonight. Although an injury such as the one sustained by Tim is just a coincidental occurrence, knowing that you may have hurt someone severely, albeit unintentionally, weighs heavily on the mind, I'd imagine. Mr. Young's reaction to the situation, his swift and immediate consolation of Hudson, and his genuine care and sadness for the fate befallen upon his fellow baseball player was evident and sincere. I commend him for his character. Baseball is just a game, a game that I love to watch, follow, and analyze, but I'm much more happy to see displays of humanity and compassion than I am to see a hitter with a 150 wRC+ or a pitcher with a great K/BB ratio.

With that being said, considering the injuries to Hudson and Paul Maholm, the inconsistency of Kris Medlen, and the uncertain status of Brandon Beachy as a member of the team, I think that it would be prudent for our organization to begin evaluating starting pitching around the league. Although I am infatuated with Mike Minor and Julio Teherán and optimistic about the possible contributions of Alex Wood to the Braves' rotation, there are huge red flags and a lot of unanswered questions surrounding our starting pitching as a unit. Will Alex Wood consistently be able to go deep into games and have success as a starting pitcher against Major League hitters? Will Kris Medlen somehow re-acquire the ability to locate his sometimes dominant 2-seam fastball, setting up the ability for him to use his plus change up and other offerings? Will Brandon Beachy be able to recover fully from his June 2012 Tommy John surgery and contribute to the Braves as a starter in 2013? Paul Maholm is sort of a different animal, to me--although he is currently on the DL with a "wrist injury" (the veracity of that claim may be slightly dubious), I just don't foresee him contributing positively to our rotation. Maholm seems to struggle mightily unless he has absolute pinpoint command and/or a generous strike zone during any given outing. Although he had a fantastic start to the season (albeit against such offensive powerhouses as the Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins), he has fallen on hard times. I'd rather not see him being a part of the Braves' rotation down the stretch and (hopefully) into the playoffs in 2013, but he seems to have the support of his manager and the front office, so, we'll see how that plays out.

In any case, in my opinion, the acquisition of a capable starting pitcher would be a tremendously valuable to the Braves in 2013. Names such as Jake Peavy, Ervin Santana, and Bud Norris have been floated around as possible fits for Atlanta, and I'm not wholly opposed to any of those guys. Peavy has a bad contract and injury concerns, and Ervin Santana and Bud Norris have both outperformed their peripherals. That being said, I think that the Braves and the Mariners could hash out a deal that would be beneficial for both sides, centered around the acquisition of the Mariners' 31 year old Japanese starting pitcher, Hisashi Iwakuma.

After coming over from the Nippon Professional Baseball league, Iwakuma has pitched meritoriously as a member of the Mariners' staff. Although he was not afforded the opportunity to start during the first three months of the 2012 season, during which he pitched mostly as a long reliever (somewhat unsuccessfully, as he struggled with walking batters [4.5 BB/9]) in the M's bullpen, he took his opportunity to become a member of the rotation in Seattle and ran with it. Iwakuma walked fewer batters, struck out more batters, and posted a very solid line during July, August, and September. Although his 2.65 ERA was slightly inflated by a high strand rate of 83% and his high number of starts in a run-depressed environment (cough, cough, Safeco and your marine air), he struck out 7.4 batters/9 innings, and walked only 2.65 batters/9. Iwakuma did a fantastic job of keeping the ball on the ground, allowing a GB/FB ratio of 1.82, and succeeded despite a relatively high percentage (21.1%) of line drives given up. His 3.61 xFIP as a starter in 2012 indicates that he probably benefitted a bit from his defense, his strand rate, and his home park, but still, those are impressive numbers from a pitcher coming over to the MLB after many years in Japan as a 30 year-old.

Let's now take a look at how Iwakuma has progressed this season. He has allowed only a .279 wOBA against (versus .303 last season as a starter), has upped his K/9 (7.81 K/9), and seen a drastic reduction in walks, allowing only 1.37 free passes per 9 innings. Let's just put it this way--when your walk rate is cut in half, you're striking out more batters, and you're allowing fewer line drives (15.2 LD% this season) and thus inducing weaker contact in a park where it is now tougher to pitch, you're doing well. Iwakuma's stellar 2.99 ERA this season seems not to be too much of a mirage--his SIERA and xFIP both stand at 3.26, a number that is markedly better than any of the Braves' current starting pitchers have put up this season (Mike Minor is the closest with a 3.43 SIERA). Although Iwakuma has flown under the radar on a team in the Pacific Northwest that doesn't win many games (and thus doesn't receive much media attention), he has quietly put together a spectacular season as a starter behind Felix Hernandez in Seattle.

Iwakuma's 2013 Season:

















Iwakuma is best described a ground ball pitcher, despite the fact that his GB% isn't as high as it was last season. He throws around 50% fastballs, 22% splitters and sliders, and 5% curveballs. His splitter is obviously used to try to induce ground balls, and hey, who wouldn't want to see Andrelton Simmons making more plays! (although you shouldn't let them hit it to any other infielders of ours, please). His velocity isn't outstanding (his average fastball hovers near 90 MPH), but his command is good enough that it allows him to dominate hitters without having freakishly good "stuff." I think this would play well in Atlanta, as we have a solid defense to play behind him. Although players such as Dan Uggla, Chris Johnson, and Justin Upton have been maligned defensively, overall, our team defense is solid. Iwakuma strikes out a fair number of guys, but balls are put into play.

Although Seattle isn't contending this season, they're in a position to compete fairly soon, with excellent young starters such as Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen, as well as other promising young arms such as James Paxton (all of whom could be ready for the big leagues in 2014, by the way). Unfortunately for Seattle, they haven't experienced consistent hitting from their young, promising batsmen (with the exception of Kyle Seager). Although the Mariners have recently been hot offensively, players such as Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Michael Saunders have underwhelmed at the big league level. The Mariners do have some promising young infield pieces, such as Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, and Seager. Unfortunately for Seattle, their system is starved for outfield talent and depth. Right now, they're throwing Saunders, Endy Chavez (wow.), Raul Ibañez (who has actually been incredibly good as an 80 year-old), and Jason Bay out there in the major leagues. Gabriel Guerrero (the nephew of Vlad the Impaler, by the way!) and Julio Morban are really their only possible impact prospects in the minors, and Guerrero is only 19 years old and a ways away, while Morban has done well at AA this season, albeit with a lack of power. So, I believe that the Braves have a few pieces that could be of use to Seattle in this possible deal. Now, I also believe that the Braves desperately need a left-handed reliever before the deadline passes (I discussed this in a previous FanPost), and Oliver Perez (my personal chosen one) and Charlie Furbush are both lefty relievers in Seattle's 'pen that the Braves could have an interest in acquiring as well. With those facts in mind, I present...

TQA's Trade Fantasy:

Braves Receive

-RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (31 years old, signed through 2014 with a club option for 2015 at $7 million/year)

-LHR Oliver Perez (31 years old, signed through the end of 2013 for $1.5 million/year)

Mariners Receive

-RHP Mauricio Cabrera (19 years old, currently at low-A Rome)

-OF Matt Lipka (21 years old, currently at high-A Lynchburg)

-OF Josh Elander (21 years old, currently at high-A Lynchburg)

-OF/1B Joey Terdoslavich (24 years old, currently with Atlanta)

I believe that this trade would benefit both sides, as both stand to gain without giving up anything too exorbitant. Although the loss of Cabrera might concern Braves fans, I believe that, organizationally, we will have enough depth in the future to not have to worry about relying on Cabrera. There are lots of promising young arms in the system, including Lucas Sims, Jason Hursh, Alex Wood, J.R. Graham, and Cody Martin, and this would make me feel comfortable about losing Cabrera, as talented as he is. Lipka is a toolsy outfielder, something that the Mariners are in desperate need of. Although he is repeating a level and a bit old for Lynchburg, I think that he and Elander both give the Mariners two outfield prospects that could help to make an impact in Seattle in the future. Terdoslavich is a guy who could contribute sooner than the other three players sent to Seattle, and has shown a definite ability to hit in the minors. Although no prospect is a sure thing, they add talent and hitting to an organization that is starved in the outfield for both. Meanwhile, the Braves gain a tough left-handed reliever, and a stealthily brilliant starting pitcher to anchor our team's rotation.

Although I believe that each side has much to gain in this deal, I'm not completely sure that it would go through. For one, the Mariners have a wealth of starting pitching in their minor league system. Although they'd lose Iwakuma in this deal, they'd still have King Felix, as well as a stable of young arms to project to be good-to-great major leaguers. Cabrera would certainly add to that depth, although Seattle may not feel as if they need a player like Cabrera as much as an impact bat. Lipka is an intriguing prospect to me because of his tools, but tools don't always translate. Elander mashed at Rome this season, but has had a bit of trouble adjusting to high-A pitching, putting up a 97 wRC+ in 87 ABs at Lynchburg. Seattle might want more than just Cabrera, Lipka, and Elander, and could ask for a player such as Jose Peraza or Victor Caratini, which would make the decision for the Braves a highly difficult one. Also, the Braves could be put off a bit by Perez's past struggles, as well as Iwakuma's age.

Ultimately, though, as I said, I'd probably pull the trigger here if I were the GM on both sides of the aisle. Iwakuma isn't young, and how will a 31 year-old starting pitcher fit into the Mariners' future? Pitchers are notoriously unreliably healthy, and Iwakuma isn't getting any younger. They're still probably 2 or 3 years from contending at the earliest, and their organizational SP depth probably allows for them to have a bit of wiggle room in dealing out current successful starters. Cabrera just adds to the Mariners' SP depth, and he'd be waiting in the wings, with a probable Major League ETA or 2016 or 2017 (unlike the more major-league ready current starters that the Mariners possess). He's also a high-ceiling guy who I believe can be a #2 or #3 major league starter, provided that he harnesses some of his control issues. He's young, so I fully expect that to occur. Perez and Iwakuma both have good, team-friendly contracts, and the Braves' wouldn't feel crushed by paying Iwakuma $7 million next year. They also would be key additions to a team that is vying for a deep run in the playoffs, and that lacks a true #1 pitcher and a shut-down lefty reliever. So, if I'm the Braves, I try to entice the Mariners and acquire at least one of Iwakuma/Perez. I'd rather see Iwakuma, but I believe that even Perez would drastically help our 'pen.

So, what do you think? I threw this together rather quickly, but I think it's a reasonable proposition, at least. Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you're so inclined, follow me on Twitter @TQA8_ (ugh, that was painful).

Thanks for reading!



This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.

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