Seattle Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says the Mariners have what other teams aren’t going to be able to find in the middle of the season — a starting pitcher they say can be a difference-maker.
That’s right — Hisashi Iwakuma.
Thought he was done, his Mariners career over? Stottlemyre says be prepared to be surprised by a potential resurgence from the former All-Star who has a no-hitter on his resume.
“This guy is far from done,” Stottlemyre said.
Iwakuma is on a minor league, see-what’s-left-in-the-tank contract he signed this offseason.
To clarify, he won’t pitch for the Mariners anytime soon, as in the first month of the season. But Mariners manager Scott Servais said Thursday that the plan is for Iwakuma to throw a full bullpen before they leave spring training following his recovery from shoulder “debridement” surgery performed by Dr. Keith Meister on Sept. 27.
Iwakuma threw off the bullpen mound Thursday afternoon.
“He’s looked good at this point,” Stottlemyre said. “I watched him and what he went through last year and how the ball is coming out of his hand and trying to find the slot, the plane, the deceleration — everything for me lends itself to look like he’s feeling healthy and the ball is coming out.
“And now we have to start the progression to bullpens, to live rehab assignments. This guy could be our secret weapon — no doubt.”
Yeah, secret weapon. Servais said the same thing.
“We were just talking about him yesterday and I think looking at him, I’m hopeful that he can really impact us at some point as kind of like our secret weapon,” Servais said.
“We all know what Kuma brings and how he competes. He’s got to have his stuff back. But everything indicates he feels really good. The ball is coming out good and he he’s hasn’t thrown a bullpen yet, but he’s getting close.”
That’s far from the believed outlook when Iwakuma was shut down last season from May 7 (initially with shoulder inflammation) after just five starts with the Mariners.
He had said he even thought about retirement. He was shut down in mid-September, but before that he had thrown a pair of June rehab assignments in Triple-A Tacoma before his throwing program was shut down in early July after discouraging results and continued discomfort in his shoulder.
But he came back to the Mariners when he signed a minor-league deal in late November. Others have doubted, but Servais said he hasn’t.
“I always thought, all offseason … I know Dr. Meister and he was very optimistic,” Servais said.
The surgery was an arthroscopic cleanup to remove some scar tissue and loose bodies in the shoulder. Nothing was torn.
“(Meister) was very positive coming out of the surgery that he felt Kuma would pitch again and be a productive guy,” Servais said. “I don’t know how much is left in the tank, but I certainly feel good about him getting back out there. But really all offseason I’ve felt good about his chances and kind of seeing him and how he’s going about it — so why not?”
Why not, indeed. The Mariners have plenty other rotation options now — this coming after entering the 2017 spring training with plans for Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Drew Smyly, Iwakuma and Yovani Gallardo … before Ariel Miranda ended up leading the team in innings.
Now there’s Hernandez, Paxton, Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales — at least to start the season before the Mariners would need a fifth starter in the rotation by April 11. And then they can add either Miranda or Rob Whalen before Erasmo Ramirez returns from a lat strain (he was scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Friday).
So Iwakuma could be a cherry on top.
“The coaches are really talking about that. Think about that — you’re not going to go out in May or June and trade for a guy like that,” Stottlemyre said. “You’re not. Those guys aren’t there.”
Since coming over from Japan, Iwakuma is 63-39 for his six-year career with a 3.42 ERA. He was 16-12 in 2016 with a 4.12 ERA in 33 starts and 199 innings (compared to Miranda leading the team with 160 innings last year, with Paxton behind him at 136 innings). But then Iwakuma started just six games in 2017 and allowed 15 runs in 31 innings.
“He has a lot of miles on his arm. The guy has been around. We don’t know how much is left,” Stottlemyre said. “But the guys knows how to pitch and the question is can he get his stuff back? If the stuff can show back up, we already know what we’re going to get as far as throwing the guy out between the lines. He’s already proven that.
“The game-planning and ability to read bats and manage the game — that’s going to be like riding a bike for him. It’s just going to be a matter of can we get those weapons back to where they are.”