There has been a lot of recent talk about the Rays completing a sign-and-trade with Iwamura’s rather affordable $4,250,000 option for 2010 with teams such as the Dodgers or the Cubs most recently brought up in Marc Topkin’s column. The average fan may be taken aback by seeing that dollar figure and affordable put into the same sentence given that Aki only hit one homer in 2009 and only scored 22 runs while driving in 20, but here me out. According to the great folks at FanGraphs.com, Aki’s 2009 production would have been worth $5,500,000 on the open market. If you assume that Aki performs at the same level in 2010 that he did in 2009, his 2010 contract would come at an 23% discount.
There are a few questions that come up when considering this move. First – can we assume Aki performs at the same level? 2009 was marred by the knee injury suffered when Chris Coghlan became a human bowling ball breaking up a double play. It was initially feared that Iwamura was done for the season but further investigation after the swelling went down found that he did not have a season-threatening injury. At the time of his injury, Iwamura was hitting .310/.378/.406 in 155 at bats and after the injury hit .246/.316/.348 in 69 at bats. Since crossing the Pacific Ocean, Iwamura has been a rather consistent hitter at the dish as most of his supporting skills have remained the same each season so his risk is somewhat mitigated. One trend Iwamura has held the entire time is a reverse-splits behavior in how he handles lefties and righties. 2007 is the only season in which he had a higher batting average against righties than he did lefties the results of that season were the complete opposite of 2007 and 2009.
I would like to have seen what Iwamura did in 2009 without the knee injury as I want to fault some of the extreme struggles against righites in 2009 due to the leg injury and not feeling comfortable enough with the base of his swing and that it exaggerated his habit of bailing out on his swing. The knee also cost him two full points in his UZR/150.
The next question is that if Iwamura is such a bargain with his option, why don’t the Rays just keep him? I get this line of thinking and can relate to it as Aki is one of my favorite players on the Rays roster. I got to first meet him at the 2007 Devil Rays Caravan in Orlando and was interviewed by Japanese TV about my thoughts on Aki joining the Rays. I said his defense would be a welcome addition to a club that sorely needed it and he was indeed an upgrade at third base that season. and he was nice enough to autograph a Devil Rays pennant for my son that still hangs in his room today. Not to mention, this at bat remains one of my favorite moments from 2008 – next to this one.
Honestly, as much as I like the guy, the Rays have better ways of spending $4,250,000 in 2010 and that would start with finding a better solution at catcher. Second base could (and should) easily become Ben Zobrist’s permanent home while the right field job could become a platoon of Matt Joyce and Gabe Kapler or even Fernando Perez. A sign-and-trade would be in the best financial interests of the club but not in the emotional interests of some of its fans. Iwamura has been one of the more popular players in recent Rays history but baseball is a business and fans need to trust ownership to do what is best for the team even if that means losing one or some of your favorite players.
A stipulation in Iwamura’s contract mandates that the Rays either pick up the 2010 option or buy it out the day after the World Series ends for $250,000 thus granting him free agency. If the Rays do pick up the option sometime in the next week, that does not necessarily guarantee Aki is staying in a Rays uniform but it would continue to keep those trade rumors alive. I don’t know if the Rays are in position to grab talent off the 40 man roster of either the Cubs or the Dodgers so it is tough to speculate on any kind of potential return on a deal outside of the possibility of the Rays using Iwamura as a piece in the long-rumored Burrell for Bradley talks to get the Cubs to eat more of Bradley’s deal. It is my experience the longer things stretch out, the less likely they are to happen and as has been mentioned a few times, an outfield that has both Burrell and Alfonso Soriano in it might make Cubs pitchers mutinous.