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Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010

News photo
Outbound: Tohoku Rakuten ace Hisashi Iwakuma is ready to leave Japan to compete in the major leagues. The Eagles say they have no plans to post him. KYODO PHOTO

SPORTS SCOPE

Best move for Eagles to collect on Iwakuma while they can


Hisashi Iwakuma, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles' best pitcher, is ready to see just how greener the grass is in Major League Baseball.

Jason Coskrey

The Eagles contractually hold all the cards for one more season and don't outwardly seem particularly willing to let go of their ace.

But should they?

If Iwakuma really wants to go — and by all accounts he does — he's going to go. The only question is if it'll be this offseason or the next.

Iwakuma's only hope of heading to the MLB this offseason is if the Eagles post him. Meaning there would be at least something to gain from Rakuten's standpoint as well.

If he leaves as an international free agent after next season, the Eagles gain nothing except a hole at the top of the rotation.

Iwakuma is in his 11th season — including four with the Kintetsu Buffaloes — and is 101-62 with a 3.32 ERA. Plagued by injuries during his first three years in Sendai, Iwakuma has turned out three above-average years for Rakuten since 2008.

Also, no matter what the Major League Baseball-run World Baseball Classic powers-that-be tell you, Iwakuma, not MLB pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, was the real MVP of the 2009 tournament.

He's itching for a new challenge now. So, Rakuten, why not let him leave, and come away with his posting fee at least?

Granted, posting him won't result in a windfall, a la the $51.1 million the Seibu Lions commanded for Matsuzaka, but the final amount will be a whole lot better than nothing.

Letting your best player leave usually runs counter-productive to a team's best interests. But Rakuten has hardly lit the baseball world on fire even with Iwakuma at his best.

With a 10-8 mark this season, the right hander has notched double-digit victories each of the past three years. Entering Tuesday, the Eagles' record during that span was 198-213-7.

Rakuten was 65-76-3 and finished in fifth place in the Pacific League during Iwakuma's Sawamura Award-winning year in 2008, when he matched a 21-4 record with a 1.87 ERA and was named the PL MVP.

Besides, as much as losing Iwakuma would hurt, having 21-year-old Masahiro Tanaka on the roster softens the blow considerably.

The fourth-year hurler was 46-26 with a 3.06 ERA during his brief career entering Tuesday's games.

"Ma-Kun" is fiery, emotional and one of the most fun pitchers to watch outside of Hokkaido Nippon Ham's Yu Darvish and Tokyo Yakult's Yoshinori Sato.

Where Iwakuma is more reserved in his dealings, Tanaka wears his heart on his sleeve — though his emotions do sometimes get the best of him.

Should Nippon Ham, for instance, ever decide to post Darvish, the dropoff would be enormous and devastating to the Fighters' pitching staff. Losing Iwakuma wouldn't have quite the same effect with Tanaka there to pick up the pieces as the clear-cut ace.

Eagles representative Jun Yoneda said Monday the team has not discussed any plans to post Iwakuma and sees him as part of the equation in 2011.

Iwakuma is under contract for next season and if the Eagles want to keep him they are well within their rights to do so.

Unless something changes, Iwakuma is going to leave, be it this year or the next.

Given his talent and value to the Eagles, the team's position is understandable. They should, however, weigh the immediate negatives of posting him against the possible future gains of such a move. Not to mention taking advantage of a chance to do right by one of their best players.


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