Photo: Jon Wells
Height: 6'3" Weight: 210
Bats/Throws: Right / Right
Born: 04/12/1981 in Higashiyamato, Japan
Nickname: Kuma ("bear")
Family: Wife Madoka, son Towa, daughters Uta and Rima
Acquired: Signed as a free agent (11/27/2017)
MLB Debut: 04/20/2012
Free Agent after: 2018 season
Iwakuma's Mariner career began badly, but not because of anything he did. After signing as a free agent out of Japan in 2012, he reported to camp and was essentially ignored by then-manager Eric Wedge. He'd been a star in the Japanese leagues, posting a cumulative 107-69, 3.25 mark in 11 seasons (50-26, 2.58 the immediately previous four) including an MVP and Sawamura Award (like the Cy Young over here) in 2008. Yet Wedge wouldn't give him the time of day, barely trotting him out to the mound for a couple innings here and there in the spring and then declaring that he would not be in the starting rotation, instead giving his spot to the never-successful-before-or-since Hector Noesi. Iwakuma was then the last Mariner to make his first appearance in a game that year, three weeks into the season, in a mopup relief role. Wedge refused to move him into the rotation until he had need of a fill-in in June. Once he did, Kuma went 8-4, 2.65 the rest of the way in 16 starts.
What Eric Wedge's problem was, we can only guess at, but Kuma took the mistreatment in stride and proceeded to be one of the Mariners' best pitchers for the next four years. In 2017, however, he was a victim of the injury epidemic and spent almost the entire season on the disabled list. Over the winter he had what they call a shoulder debridement procedure done and has been rehabbing ever since, getting to the point where he was throwing off a mound during spring training but not at a stage where he could pitch in a game. He projects to be ready to go sometime in May or early June, barring setbacks. He wants to be back ASAP, but recognizes the uncertainties of coming back from injury. “I feel better,” he said through an interpreter, “but at the same time, I feel some anxiety. I’m going to be honest, we’re all hoping for a full recovery, but you have to fight the situation and fear.”
The M's offered to bring him back on a minor-league contract this season, and Kuma was quick to accept. "I didn’t think about signing with any other teams,” he said. “This is the team I want to play for. This is the city I want to play for. And these are the teammates I want. And [Seattle fans] are the fans I want to play in front of. When the Mariners offered me the invitation, I was very excited to get that chance again. I need to pay it back and make up for the loss and the work that I didn’t put in last year."
We were hoping to see Iwakuma back on the hill at Safeco Field this summer, but his recovery has been slow going. What his future holds is anyone's guess, but we wish him the best, be it here in Seattle or elsewhere.