Rays Decision on Iwamura is Complex
Duane Burelson / AP
With the beginning of the 2009 off season upon us, teams like the Tampa Bay Rays will soon have to begin to make some serious personnel decisions for the 2010 season, even before they hit the MLB Winter meetings in Indianapolis, Indiana. Everybody and their brother already know about the Rays impending decision on Carl Crawford’s $ 10 million club option, and his public eagerness to sweeten the deal and possibly sign another extended contract.
But there is another Rays player who has made it be known to the Rays front office through the media that he would entertain a contract restructuring, and maybe give the team a local discount because of his family’s love for this area. Iwamura informed the Tampa Bay media during his May 29th press conference about his successful knee surgery that he wants to “come back for the fans” in 2010, and the teams holds a $4.85 million club option.
One thing working into Iwamura’s favor is the fact the Rays have seen him work totally with the team in mind in the past to do whatever is needed to make this Rays team better. When he first came to the Rays, he was their third baseman, and he quickly showed his defensive skills at that position. After the end of the 2007 season, Iwamura was asked by the Rays Coaching staff if he would consider a move to second base to open the door for the Rays top prospect Evan Longoria to maybe move into that position in the Spring of 2008.
Without hesitation, Iwamura began to work on the switch during the off season both in Japan and with the team at the Rays complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. Iwamura was hoping for a smooth seamless transition to his new spot at second base. During that off season, the Rays traded with the Twins for Jason Bartlett to also add more defensive power to their two weakest spots in the infield.
Iwamura stated to the St. Petersburg Times on February 17,2008 that he was “Proud of my play at third base but at same time if the team needs me to be at second for team reasons I more than welcome it,” he said through new interpreter Bori Uchibori. “It’s a challenge to me anyway. I know I can do it. Wiggy can do it so I can do it.” During that season’s Spring Training, Iwamura and Bartlett worked out together and formed a quick bond and a second sense for each others actions and reactions, and it became a flawless fit for the team.
Even after his knee surgery to repair damage received during a May 29,2008 game against the Florida Marlins where Marlins rookie Chris Coghlan came in hard to break up a double play and Iwamura went down in a heap after getting caught between the bag and Coghlan’s foot. Iwamura was encouraged by the surgeries prognosis and vowed to be back with the team before the end of the season. On August 29th, Iwamura returned from the disabled list after 60 days.
And that kind of team-oriented qualities need to be welcomed by the Rays Coaching staff and Front Office as they consider if they want to include Iwamura in their future plans. You can bet there will be more than a few discussions before the team announces if they will pick up or refuse Iwamura’s 2010 option. And the team can go a few directions here. There is some doubt right now if recently acquired infielder Sean Rodriguez, who might have outgrown Triple-A is ready for every day duty in the major leagues.
And that has to be the biggest question mark surrounding Iwamura right now. Can Rodriguez be an every day MLB level player for the Rays, or even a valuable utility man like Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist? That might be the big question in mind as the Rays roll the dice before the team reports to Port Charlotte on February 19,2010. Can they afford to refuse his option and resign him for a reduced salary and incentives, or risk letting him test the free agent waters?
And you know there are a bevy of teams that might want to lure Iwamura away from the Rays. A team like the New York Mets could benefit from the Rays confusion and would use his speed and flexibility to compliment their infield. But this is putting the cart before the horse. The Rays have not let their intentions known yet to the general public, but you know it is a high priority of the Rays Front Office to try and get both a financial and team suitable arrangement that can benefit both sides.
And with Iwamura being a bit of a fan favorite, the team might have to tread a bit lightly right now considering the fallout from the Scott Kazmir trade in late August 2008. To make another trade so quick without a solution in hand might again send up some unwarranted red flags amongst the Rays faithful. The Rays best solution might be to sign Iwamura to a extended contract with the stipulation that if Rodriguez is ready, Iwamura could be traded to another team during the season.
That would show a level of good faith by the Rays along with some future considerations in place if Rodriguez provides another option piece for the team. The worst part of this decision is that it is going to be more of a financial than personal decision about Iwamura. You know the team would love to keep someone like Iwamura on their roster, but his payroll number might make it unfeasible. But the team has been sure to note that an exit visa is not in the cards right now to jettison Iwamura from the Rays.
But his $ 4.85 million club option is also pretty affordable by most of the teams within the MLB, and the Rays could shop Iwamura maybe for some Bullpen help that the team desperately need right now. I actually hope they come to an arrangement prior to accepting or declining his option that would benefit both sides. And maybe an “out” or trade revision will have to be added to any contract. But since Iwamura has announced he would do some shifting in money and conditions, this negotiation is going to be tricky for the Rays.
There is a slippery slope here that the Rays have to be careful and move gingerly or fall prey to some past decisions. But that is one of the drawbacks of being an successful club. Sometimes hard line financial decisions have to be made without personal feeling involved. Best case scenario has Iwamura staying with the team and maybe moved at the Trade Deadline when Rodriguez could get some extra time at Triple-A.
But no matter what the team does between now and February, you know this is going to be one of their toughest decisions of this offseason. Hopefully they make the right decision with the team and its future in mind.