Possible Free Agent Targets: Akinori Iwamura

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to write much lately as trying to find a job has started taking more precedence as the prospect of being unemployed for a year has become much more real as we get closer to that milestone.  This should be the first of hopefully many, depending on my employment status, looks at possible free agent acquisitions.  This piece will focus on Akinori Iwamura, who while not technically a free agent, is likely to have his team option declined, since the Rays' have Ben Zorbist, Reid Brignac, and Sean Rodriguez (the PTBNL from the Kazmir deal) all available at league minimum to fill his starting spot at 2b and Evan Longoria well established at his former hot corner perch. Iwamura, according to Cot's Contracts, has a $4.25m and a $250k buy out.  There is however, a special provision in Iwamura's contract.  Since Iwamura has only three years of service time since coming over from Japan, he would normally only qualify for salary arbitration, regardless of whether the Rays pick up his option, but his contract contains a provision that requires the Rays to extend him before his contract expires, or to release him.

Aki has shown a slightly above league average bat with a career .332 wOBA.  This year Aki is exceeding that figure in limited playing time after returning from knee surgery earlier in the year.  This years' .341 wOBA may be partially explained by Iwamura's .366 BABIP.  However, Iwamura has always had high BABIP, which can partially be attested to his 20% career line drive rate, good speed, ample ground ball percentage, and hitting left handed.  The thing that really jumps out and makes me think that he can sustain his high BAPIP number are that while Iwamura's walk rate is league average he swings at balls at dramatically below league average rate, this year only 14% of all pitches out of the zone compared to a 25% league average.

There are some reasons to worry about possible regression.  Aki's .366 BABIP is a career high and his infield fly ball percentage is a flukishly low 1.7%.  That being said his HR/FB rate is also likely to regress above his career low 1.7% this year back toward his 4% career average, which should make up some of the difference in lost output from a BABIP with a higher ISO from hitting more home runs.  Moving forward at a still youngish 30. I expect that Aki will be slightly more than league average with the bat (2.5 BRAA) over the next two or three years.

Now lets look at defense. In the Majors, Iwamura has played both 3b and 2b with the (Devil) Rays.  Tom Tango had the great idea of polling fans who watch their team's defense for a ton of games every year.  While observation in this manner is far from perfect, it does provide an additional reference point to UZR.  This years Fans' Scouting Report has Aki above average in every category, with an overall rating of good (3.9 out of 5), though coming back from an injury he might have been a little slower initially.  Compare that with the 2008 The Scouting Report, By the Fans, For the Fans:

Player Pos Position-Specific Overall
Instincts FirstStep Speed Hands Release Strength Accuracy Ballots Agreement
Iwamura, Akinori 2B 73 72 75 72 61 76 83 56 77 39 0.76

And now for 2007:

Player Pos Overall
Position- Neutral
Instincts FirstStep Speed 
Hands Release Strength Accuracy Ballots Agreement
Iwamura, Akinori 3B 78 86 84 65 76 85 63 81 27 0.79

This is fun right?  The reason why I bring this up is several fold.  First UZR numbers for Aki are muddied by the fact that he has played two different positions of over the last three years so the sample sizes are small, but they show him as a league average fielder at both 2b and 3b, where he won several gold gloves in Japan.  I would expect Iwamura to have league average to slightly above league average defense at either position.

Before coming to the United States,  Aki Iwamura suggested that he was willing to play SS, CF, or 2B in addition to his traditional 3b.  By signing Aki, the A's would be acquiring a starting caliber 3b/2b, which would allow the A's to keep Wallace in the minors or shift him over to 1b without rushing Adrian Cardenas.  This further protects against a Mark Ellis injury which is not an infrequent occurrence, and would prevent rushing Cardenas to fill in and is surely a better option than playing Gregorio Petit.

I have suggested in the past with regards to Adam Kennedy that it would be problematic to have a back up infielder who could not play SS.  This is especially true with the likelyhood that Cliff Pennington bombs and there needs to be another option at SS.  Because of his defensive reputation I think Iwamura would able to play a semi respectable SS, around -5 to -10 FRAA, which wouldn't negatively affect his value with the increased position runs. Which coupled with Pennington's strong showing this year, makes it less likely that that possibility would come into play.  The A's depth has not been good for the last couple of years and the ability to add a starting caliber player for what I suspect could be a $4.5m per year for two years, a $9m total package coming off of his knee injury.

Finally, and I have no knowledge of how much revenue it would generate, but adding a Japanese star could do the A's well by increasing attention, merchandise sales, and reaching out to the Japanese fan base in the Bay Area and abroad.  If the A's signed Iwamura, maybe the next time they open the year in Japan, they will have more supporters in the Tokyo Dome.

When it all comes down to it,  I see Adam Kennedy wanting a similar contract for less production, especially at third base.  Furthermore, Aki's versatility would serve the A's well compared to a strictly 3b only candidate like Adrian Beltre, who would also probably cost more.

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