After signing Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez last week, the Red Sox now have an even greater glut of position players and the same need for starting pitching they had when the offseason began. It is obvious that a part of the plan will involve a trade for starting pitching and I believe the best option available is Mariners' starter Hisashi Iwakuma.
When you are pitching on the same staff as Felix Hernandez, it is easy to get overlooked. Working in the shadow of the King, Iwakuma has quietly been one of the better starting pitchers in baseball since joining the Mariners in 2012. Over that span he is 35th in fWAR, 14th in ERA (just ahead of Stephen Strasburg) and 38th in FIP. That doesn't make him an ace exactly but it does place him firmly in the upper-tier of starters in the game today and with a salary of just $7 million for next season, it also makes him one of the best values on the mound right now. There are draw backs to consider too, of course. Iwakuma will turn 34 early in the 2015 season and he does have some injury concerns. A strained tendon in his finger caused him to start the 2014 season late and that limited him to 174 innings. He also had some minor shoulder issues back in the 2006 and 2007 while still pitching in Japan.
Those risk are balanced by an incredible skill set, however. To start with, Iwakuma is one of the top control pitchers in the game. His career BB/9 rate of 1.82 doesn't even really explain just how rarely he walks hitters since it is dragged upward by the 3.09 rate he posted in his first year in the States. In 2013, he cut that rate down to 1.72 and last season it was just 1.06. That control is matched by very solid strikeout numbers which have also improved with each season he has spent in America. Last season, he posted a 7.74 K/9 rate. Put that together with his control and you have one of the better pitchers in baseball. His K%-BB% of 16 percent ranked 18th in baseball last season and six of the players ahead of him on that list have Cy Young Awards on their mantels. Any time you are talking about a player who has pitched in Seattle coming to Boston, there is reason to worry about his ability to work in a less-friendly home park, but Iwakuma should make that transition as well as anyone thanks to his command and the fact that his groundball stuff (50.1 percent career rate) should play just about anywhere.
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Trading for Iwakuma would essentially give Boston's 2015 rotation the same boost that signing free agent James Shields would, but it would mean committing to just one season or possibly perhaps extending him for one or two more seasons instead of having to outbid other teams on a potential five-year deal. If Boston were to add Iwakuma and sign Jon Lester (Do IT! Do it NOW!), their rotation would immediately jump from one of the shakiest units in the game to one of the more formidable ones and only a few other trade options could reasonably do that.
So the question is, what will it take to land Iwakuma? Whatever the package looks like, it is guaranteed to start with Yoenis Cespedes. The Cuban slugger is the most expendable piece of the Red Sox outfield picture that actually has trade value now that Ramirez is coming onboard to play left field. It seems like the Mariners have been on a holy crusade to find power hitters since before catchers donned masks and now that they have dealt Micheal Saunders for J.A. Happ, they also have a hole in their outfield. Pairing Cespedes's bat with the newly signed Nelson Cruz and the left-handed hitting Robinson Cano would certainly help cut the gap between the Angels and the Mariners in the AL West. Now that the Athletics appear to be in rebuilding mode, it makes sense for Seattle to go all out for this upcoming season.
While losing Iwakuma would certainly be a blow to their rotation, they do have other options to turn to. The guy at the top of their rotation is pretty good too and he isn't going anywhere. Highly regarded prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker both battled injuries in 2014, but they should be healthy this season and ready to contribute. Rookie Roenis Elias emerged as solid contributor to the rotation in 2014 and should be again if he recovers from the late-season elbow issues that sidelined him down the stretch and Happ gives them a fifth starter who should be around league-average in his new, more forgiving park. There is some interesting depth there as well. 24-year-old Brandon Maurer is an intriguing young arm who started some for Seattle last season and fellow 24-year-old Erasmo Ramirez gives them a reasonable backup plan should anyone fall to injury.
Still, giving up a pitcher of Iwakuma's caliber would be hard on the Mariners. Boston can ease the pain by including one of the many major league-ready arms they have to add to the depth in the Seattle system. In my opinion, Allen Webster should be the additional player needed to get this deal done. Webster was highly regarded as a prospect and while his first 89 innings in the show have been uninspiring, at 24, he is hardly a finished product. His ERA in Pawtucket was solid last season and a move to the more pitcher-friendly Safeco could be just the thing to encourage him to start attacking the zone more. Even if Webster can't stick in the rotation, there is always a chance he could emerge as impact arm out of the bullpen. He won't replace Iwakuma's production in 2015 but to land him along with Cespedes for one year of a pitcher entering his age-34 season is almost certainly a good deal for Seattle.
Looking at the trade by Steamer's fWAR projections, shows a fairly even exchange of value. Cespedes is projected for 2.7 fWAR next season and Iwakuma is project for 3.0 fWAR. Webster's numbers are not good but he is still projected for 0.6 fWAR thanks to 180-plus innings. Given that Webster will come with five years of team control, the value definitely shifts to Seattle long-term. That isn't really an issue for Boston, however. They don't need Cespedes at this point and with Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, Joe Kelly, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Brian Johnson, they won't miss Allen Webster unless he becomes something no one could possibly foresee at this point. Seattle will be adding a few million in extra salary with this deal but they will still have the ability to potentially replace Iwakuma with a free agent like James Shields if they so choose, essentially matching the production they would expect at the top of their rotation while getting another impact bat and a young arm.
The Mariners had appeared to address their constant josing for right-handed power by signing Cruz, but with Michael Saunders now gone, they have a major gap in their outfield. Reading between the lines on these two deals, it would appear that the Mariners feel they need to amass depth on the pitching side and go big on offense. That makes sense for Seattle given their home park, but I could be wrong in that interpretation and with Cruz around they might not have quite the desperate need for right-handed power they might have. If the Cruz signing has raised the price for Boston even with Saunders gone, I think Boston should be willing to offer up a better arm as long as it comes with a little extra in return. One of the young flamethrowers in the Seattle bullpen picture such as Dominic Leone or Carson Smith would probably be enough to make it worth switching out Webster for one of the higher-upside arms like Ranaudo, Rodriquez or Johnson.
I think there is a lot of potential benefit for both sides in swapping players with a single year of control remaining. The Red Sox would get the arm they desperately need in Iwakuma and Seattle would field a line-up that could compete with the Angels by sliding Cespedes in with Cano, Cruz and Seager. This probably won't happen, but maybe it should.