A few weeks ago I wondered what the future was for Akinori Iwamura and the Rays. The Rays have a few potential replacements in house and Aki is due for a raise in 2010 which will make him at least $4.25 million with a shot a $5.25 million. Principal Owner Stu Sternberg said he doesn't see the team increasing payroll in 2010, making Iwamura a prime candidate to be traded and replaced by younger and cheaper talent.
Before we get swept into the season in just three days, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on Iwamura. Aki is Mr. Average. He has never grabbed a lot of headlines with gaudy numbers and because of the language barrier he is pretty quiet most of the time, but in just two short years Iwamura has definitely made an impact.
The Rays won the right to negotiate for Iwamura back in the 2007 offseason. They paid the $4.45 million dollar posting fee and ended up signing him to a three year contract worth $7.7 million with an option year for 2010. From the start we knew Aki was a bird of a different feather.
Iwamura is fond of the number one. It was his jersey number in Japan and it's the number he wears with the Rays. The New York Times has even reported that in the past Aki began training for an upcoming season starting on January 11th at 11:11:11 am. The quirkiness doesn't end there. Iwamura showed up to his first camp with the Rays with a bright red alligator skin glove with Japanese lettering reading "No Pain, No Gain," a motto Aki follows. He picked alligator skin because Florida has...alligators. Aki quickly immersed himself in the American culture becoming a fan of the show 24 (Jack Bauer!) and getting familiar with checkers fries. This past season he was the catalyst for the Mohawk, aka RayHawk, hair style that swept the Bay Area.
On the field, Aki has made a seamless transition to the Major Leagues. The power he displayed in Japan as a 30 home run hitter never translated, but few expected that to happen. He was brought here for his solid approach at the plate and his gold glove caliber defense. What we didn't know at the time was Aki would be pretty good at third base, his natural position, but an above average at second base, a position he also looks natural at.
Iwamura ranked third in the American League in second base UZR behind Mark Ellis and Dustin Pedroia, two of the best in the game. What's impressive is it was Iwamura's first go-round at the position while Ellis and Pedroia are keystone players by trade. Even more impressive was Aki's ability to turn the double play. According to fangraphs DPR (double play runs) Iwamura was the best second basemen in regards to turning two. He reported to camp this year with a golden glove, which he plans to use during practice in hopes of getting a real one at the end of the season. He is also on record as saying he was even more comfortable at the position coming into this season.
At the plate, Aki is also different. Left handed batters aren't supposed to be better against left handed pitchers, but over the course of his two seasons that's exactly what he's done. In his "rookie" season of 2007, Iwamura hit .323/.391/.471/.862 vs. southpaws. He hit just .26/.344/.384/.728 against right handers. While that regressed to normal levels in 2008, his career OPS of .755 against lefties is better than his .744 against righties.
Never one to look for trouble, Iwamura has found himself in the middle of a few controversies during his Rays career. In 2007, there was the confiscated bat incident in which then Yankees' manager Joe Torre had Iwamura's "flathead" bat taken away by an umpire during a game. Joe Maddon responded by requesting Alex Rodriguez's bat be removed later in the game. After inspection, which deemed Aki's bat was legal, the bat was returned to Iwamura, signed by Joe Torre.
In Spring of 2008, Iwamura was the victim of retaliation by another Yankee, Shelley Duncan. We all know the story, but Iwamura was high spiked by Duncan which caused Jonny Gomes to fly in like a mad man from right field and take Duncan out. Iwamura would later be suspended for throwing punches in the Boston Brawl, again, which saw Jonny Gomes fly in like a mad man.
Starting this Monday, we could be counting down the days of Iwamura's time here in Tampa Bay. As mentioned above, it won't be Iwamura's fault, baseball is a business and in this market the business is even rougher. If this is the end of Aki's ride with the Rays he's hoping to end it with a second championship in 2009; a World Series title to go along with his WBC title. Let's hope he gets his wish.