Johjima decides to leave Mariners, opts out of contract

Catcher Kenji Johjima, relegated to backup status this year with the arrival of Rob Johnson, has decided to leave the Mariners. The Mariners said this morning that Johjima has opted out of the final two years of his contract and will return to his native Japan to finish his career.

Johjima, 33, played this year in the first of a three-year, $24 million contract. He made $8 million this season and would have made $8 each of the next two years but has decided to exercise a clause in the contract allowing him to opt out of the second and third years.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said in a conference call a few minutes ago that treturning home to play closer to his family was the sole reason Johjima gave for leaving. Zduriencik said there was no buyout involved in the deal.

Johjima, who batted .247 this year, played 11 seasons with Fukuoa of Japan’s Pacific League.

“After lots of very deep thought and deliberation, I have decided to return home to resume my career in Japan,” Johjima said in a statement released by the Mariners. “I have had a wonderful experience competing at the Major League level. The last four years have been extraordinary, with great teammates and great coaches. I will always be indebted to the Mariners organization for giving me the opportunity to follow my dream. This was a very difficult decision, both professionally and personally. I feel now is the time to go home, while I still can perform at a very high level. Playing close to family and friends was a major factor. I will miss the Seattle fans and their gracious support. Thank you all.”

Johjima’s departure leaves the Mariners’ catching situation in a state of uncertainty. Johnson had surgery on Friday to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, and he’s scheduled to undergo a similar procedure on his right hip next month. Johnson also will have surgery on his left wrist this offseason and may have surgery to remove bone spurs from his right elbow. The Mariners say he’ll be ready when spring training begins, but they also know there’s no certainty with that.

The Mariners also have catcher Adam Moore, a highly regarded prospect who was called up in September and played a few games.

“It does leave a void,.” Zduriencik said. “Any time you’re looking at a young catcher who is unproven, that remains to be seen. With Rob, we think he’s going to be ready for spring training, but we’ll see.”

Zduriencik said Johjima’s departure and Johnson’s health will make catching one of his more immediate offseason tasks.

Johjima signed as a free agent before the 2006 season, a deal influenced greatly by the Mariners’ Japanese ownership. It was a curious signing from a baseball operations perspective because, even though the Mariners had lost veteran Dan Wilson to retirement, they had drafed Jeff Clement with their first-round pick the previous June.

Johjima came to the Mariners with major concerns over his ability to communicate with pitchers because he didn’t speak English. The bigger problem, however, was that he struggled to connect with the pitchers from a baseball sense when he called games. Johjima’s learning curve was steep, coming from Japanese ball where pitchers primarily “pitch backward” by establishing the breaking ball instead of the fastball.

Still, he had a good season his first year and gave the Mariners much-needed offense, batting .291 with 18 home runs, 76 RBI and setting an American League record for hits by a rookie catcher with 147.

He batted .287 in 2007 but slumped terribly last year, when his average plumeted to .227. Meanwhile, his playing time diminished. The Mariners called up Clement — who also struggled and dealt with knee problems before the Mariners traded him midway through this season — and Johnson was called up late last season and given a strong look.

Johjima suffered a broken toe midway through the past season and Johnson got most of the playing time at catcher. Johnson also won the faith of the pitching staff and, even though the Mariners hesitated to say who was their No. 1 or No. 2 catcher, got most of the playing time by the end of the season.

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