The reign of Akinori Iwamura in Tampa Bay has been an interesting one. The second - and most recent - player the Rays went on the Japanese market to acquire, following failure of the utmost degree with the immortal Shinji Mori. Winner of multiple gold gloves at third, there was talk of Iwamura playing other positions down the road, especially with that Evan Longoria guy making a strong debut in the minors. His skill set included quickness, left-handed batting, and a strong willingness to force walks.
He arrived from a land famous for its phallus and showcased flash. Spiked hair, jewelry, sunglasses with headphones built in, alligator skinned gloves, and designer bats with golden rings painted on. He was, to quote something I wrote way back when, more Americanized upon arrival than country mates Hideki Matsui and Ichiro. Despite all of that Iwamura has never been much of a distraction. Well, usually.
His spring debut went about as swimmingly as the Titanic's maiden voyage, yet when the games actually counted Iwamura started his American career by reaching base in twelve consecutive games. Replacing B.J. Upton and Ty Wigginton at third base, Iwamura flashed the agility of a cat. His range and arm were nothing fantastic - as we've seen - but Iwamura possesses footwork beyond expression. Few players can duplicate Iwamura's ability to dive, leap to his feet, and record an out as fluently. Naturally this lead to some inflation on his defensive abilities, but hey, he was the best defender the Rays featured at the position in a while.
Iwamura made his first appearance at second base during the final game of 2007 and would move into the spot full-time entering 2008. He would bat leadoff for most of the season but miss some time with an eye injury. The incumbent starter in 2009 Iwamura would suffer a knee injury on a collision and returned late in the year.
He has a club option for next year that will fetch him a quarter of a million either way with the possibility of an additional four million if exercised. Few circumstances exist in which Iwamura wouldn't be worth 4.25 million next year. The issue is the Rays depth at the middle infield positions. You have to figure Ben Zobrist starts at second base, Willy Aybar is cheaper than Iwamura, and there's Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez to fit into the puzzle as well. Maybe Iwamura could play some corner outfield in the same manner as Zobrist, but that would mean taking a roster spot from either Rodriguez or a true reserve outfielder.
This leaves the Rays with a situation in which they must either decline Iwamura's option and therefore allowing him to find a gig on his own without compensation, or exercise the option and look for a suitor via trade. In a vacuum this is easy. Iwamura is a predictable performer with a desirable skill set and salary. There's a list of pros and cons to simply keeping him around. Maybe Zobrist flat lines, maybe Rodriguez strikes out too much, maybe Aybar decides he would rather learn Sanskrit than play baseball next year, and so on.
At the same time, Iwamura is coming off a rather serious injury and is on the wrong side of 30. His salary looms in a reserve role and the chances that he is a win better than Rodriguez, Aybar, etc., in limited action is doubtful at best. Plus the opportunity cost must be considered. This isn't simply: Iwamura or Rodriguez? This is Iwamura or Rodriguez and four million dollars to spend on the free agent market - which, in theory and usually in practice, should equate to roughly an additional win added.
Everything seems to produce a sum in which Iwamura will be playing baseball elsewhere than St. Petersburg next season. If that come to fruition, it'll be hard to find reasons to describe his tenure as anything but successful.