Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bid for Iwamura signaled Rays' arrival

Broadcasters and other analysts often get fixated on a certain theme and refuse to let it go. It doesn't matter if it's accurate; as long as it sounds good, it just won't go away. For this series, it's the idea that the Rays announced their arrival with their spring-training brawl with the Yankees and their June brawl with the Red Sox.

Never mind that the Rays have plenty of history of brawling, particularly against the Red Sox -- Gerald Williams and Pedro Martinez being the primary example. All that signaled, in August of 2000, was that the then-Devil Rays were well on their way to a then-franchise record 69 wins.

The moment that started the Rays' ascent wasn't any kind of on-field fight; all their other fights just made them look like a younger brother too frustrated with losing to do anything else. No, the moment that started the Rays' ascent was one subtle transaction: Their successful bid for Japanese import Akinori Iwamura.

Rewind to the 2006 season: The Devil Rays went 61-101 and finished last in the American League East. Scott Kazmir had a 3.24 ERA in his second full season in Tampa Bay; James Shields made 21 starts after being called up from Triple-A Durham. Carl Crawford led the Rays in most offensive categories, and players like Dioner Navarro, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young got their first consistent taste of American League pitching. Andy Sonnanstine had a 2.66 ERA in 28 starts for Double-A Montgomery; J.P. Howell made eight big-league starts but spent most of his time in Durham after having been acquired from Kansas City for Joey Gathright.

And with the No. 3 pick in the draft the previous summer, the Rays had selected third baseman Evan Longoria.

Things, in other words, weren't great -- but things were starting to come together. The Rays had young arms coming through the system and a handful of top prospects were figuring out how to hit at the big-league level. It was close to the point that the Rays only needed to fill a few holes to become a legit contender.

And that's when Iwamura became available on the posting market.

Before that, contending teams had done most of the bidding -- and winning -- when Japanese players became available. Ichiro Suzuki propelled the Seattle Mariners to 116 wins in his first season in the major leagues; the Los Angeles Dodgers won 92 games the year after bringing aboard Kazuhisa Ishii. The San Diego Padres improved from fifth to third to back-to-back division titles after bidding for setup man Akinori Otsuka; he was one of the last pieces, too.

And, in the same week Iwamura became available, the Red Sox landed Daisuke Matsuzaka in the most expensive posting transaction ($51.1 million) in the short history of the process. We all know how that worked out.

The Rays landed Iwamura four days later for the relatively paltry price of $4.5 million. The transaction went almost unnoticed. But it still was fascinating because it was Tampa Bay -- a team that had finished fourth (and won 70 games!) in 2004 and had slipped back to 61 wins in 2006, Joe Maddon's first season -- and the Rays still felt like Iwamura was a player worth their while.

Iwamura filled a specific need, the way Otsuka had for the Padres. The Rays had outfielders (Crawford, Rocco Baldell); they had a young second baseman (Upton) and would sign a young first baseman (Carlos Pena) a few months later. They had a sure-thing third baseman (Longoria) climbing the ladder. They had young pitching (Kazmir, Shields) finding its way. They even had pieces to trade (Young, who would go to Minnesota a year later for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett).

The Rays needed one more infielder. A team with aspirations to fourth place doesn't need one more infielder; a team with aspirations to third place doesn't bother to participate in the posting system. But the Rays -- who had bid for a relief pitcher a year earlier only to watch him tear his labrum that season -- didn't have aspirations to third place. The Rays had aspirations to a division title even with the Yankees and Red Sox holding a stranglehold on playoff berths out of their division.

Iwamura played third base that season, hitting .285 with seven home runs and had a range factor of 2.38 in the field. (Mike Lowell's range factor, by comparison, was 2.51.) And when Longoria came up for good earlier this season, Iwamura moved to second base and hit .274 with a career-best 70 walks while range-factoring 4.58. (Dustin Pedroia's range factor was 4.75.)

He's not a player like Longoria, who can almost singlehandedly win a playoff series. He's not a player like Pena, who's going to hit 35 home runs a year. He's not a player like Kazmir, who can be the ace of a playoff staff.

But he's the type of player a playoff team needs. He's not the type of player a last-place team needs. And that's why you can trace the start of the Rays' dramatic ascent to their successful bid for Akinori Iwamura.

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