By Kirby Arnold
After the initial shock of learning that catcher Kenji Johjima was leaving the Mariners with two years and $16 million left on his contract, the general feeling among some in the organization is that it comes as no tremendous surprise. Johjima, a proud player who half-jokingly said he wanted to catch all 162 games, had lost considerable playing time the past two years and he didn’t hide his disappointment in the situation.
Relief pitcher Mark Lowe remembers having a conversation about it with Johjima midway through the 2008 season. Lowe reached the big leagues with the Mariners in 2006, Johjima’s first season in Seattle, and the two had a good relationship, Lowe said.
“I talked to him last year about it during batting practice one day,” Lowe said. “We were in the outfield at Shea (Stadium). He told me, ‘I don’t care how much money I’m making. I don’t play for the money. I want to play every day.’ “
That’s consistent with what Johjima said this afternoon in a conference call with Japanese reporters (he declined to have a similar call with English-speaking media). He said playing time was the key issue in his decision to return to Japan, and that he believed the Mariners were committed more to younger catchers Rob Johnson and Adam Moore.
The playing time issue conflicts with the “family and friends” reason attributed to Johjima in the news release from the Mariners on Monday.
Johjima’s outfield talk with Lowe occurred during the Mariners’ interleague series against the Mets in late June, 2008. About two months earlier, on April 25, the Mariners and Johjima had agreed to that three-year, $24 million extension which we now know included the opt-out clause.
However, it already had been a sour season for Johjima, the new contract notwithstanding. On the day of his news conference to announce the extension, Johjima was batting .200. By mid-June, his playing time suffered as the Mariners, already in the throes of a terrible season, began looking at players who might (or might not) help them in the future.
They called up Jeff Clement, the former first-round draft pick who was seen as the catcher of the future or, if his defense didn’t improve, a possible first baseman or DH. Clement started seven of the final 11 games in June, 2008, as Johjima began spending more time on the bench. After starting three straight from June 15-17, Johjima started only four times the rest of the month and none in back-to-back games.
Johjima’s playing time diminished each season he was with the Mariners, from 144 games in 2006 to 135 in 2007, 112 in 2008 and 71 this year. Injuries played a part in that, but so did Johjima’s hitting slump and the preference of some pitchers over the years (Jamie Moyer, Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard and Felix Hernandez) to have others catch them. It wore on him.
“When he first came over, he was the guy guaranteed to catch every single game,” Lowe said. “Things have changed a lot in our organization. I know he always wanted to play. It’s a long season, it’s a grind. If you’re not happy, it makes you miserable.”
My take? This should be an amicable separation for both parties.
Johjima will go back to Japan and finish his career happily. The Mariners, while saying this creates a lot of uncertainty with their catching (which it does, considering the offseason surgeries of Johnson and the inexperience of Moore), have about $8 million each of the next two years to add to the money they’ll use on their greatest needs — offense, a veteran catcher and a new contract for Felix Hernandez.