Iwamura signs three-year deal
Veteran is front-runner to play third base for Rays in 2007
ST. PETERSBURG -- Reaching across the Pacific Ocean for help, the Devil Rays signed infielder Akinori Iwamura on Friday to a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $7.7 million, with a club option for a fourth year at $4.25 million.
"I am really excited and humbled by this opportunity," Iwamura said. "I look forward to being part of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and wearing the uniform."
In November, the Rays won negotiating rights to Iwamura through the posting system that enables Japanese players to play in the United States with a high bid of $4.5 million. That bid, which is paid to the Yakult Swallows, topped both the Indians and Padres.
The Rays had until midnight ET on Friday to sign Iwamura. If they were unable to hammer out a contract, Iwamura would have returned to Japan and the club wouldn't have paid the posting fee.
"We are very pleased to add a player of Akinori's ability to our organization," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "Aki is a complete player who will make a significant impact on our club. This acquisition is one more step in our efforts to expand our footprint in player procurement in the international market."
Iwamura, 27, will make $1.8 million in 2007, $2.4 million in 2008 and $3.25 million in 2009. The club has a $4.25 million option for the 2010 season or a $250,000 buyout. The contract also has escalating bonuses based on plate appearances in the first three years that could increase the option to $5.25 million and the buyout to $750,000. The Rays' financial commitment in the deal, including the posting fee, amounts to $12.25 million. Iwamura will donate up to $100,000 to the Rays Charitable Foundation.
"I think that from what I gathered, he really wants to play here," said Rays manager Joe Maddon at the Winter Meetings. "He's very self-confident. I think he will be successful here."
Iwamura echoed that sentiment by saying he would not have wanted to play in the Major Leagues if he did not feel he would succeed. However, he added he had some concerns the move was going to be a huge challenge and he hoped to make any adjustments during Spring Training.
"We expect him to have success," Friedman said. "I think his style of play will translate very well over here."
Iwamura said his goal is not to just play in the Major Leagues, but to help the team win.
"Hopefully I can help the team win this year," he said.
Iwamura was a five-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove recipient with the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League. He is a career .300 hitter, amassing 188 home runs and 570 RBIs in eight seasons with the Swallows.
He has hit at least 30 home runs and batted .300 or better in each of the last three seasons. Iwamura set a Yakult record for home runs by a Japan native with 44 in 2004. In 2006, he played in a career-high 145 games and batted .311, fifth highest in the Central League.
The Rays observed Iwamura playing third base for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, and his performance prompted their bid for his services. During the Classic, he hit .389 in six games for the championship-winning team.
Iwamura batted .440 with three doubles, one triple and seven stolen bases in the U.S.-Japan All-Star Series in 2004. He had a pair of hits off Roger Clemens in Japan's 3-1 win in Game 5 of that series. The next day, he had a double, triple and an RBI in Japan's 5-1 victory in Game 6. Iwamura then delivered a game-tying double in the ninth inning off Akinori Otsuka in Game 7 and subsequently scored the winning run in Japan's 3-2 victory. He also played in the 2002 U.S.-Japan Series and went 2-for-9, including a double off Eric Gagne.
During that 2004 Series, Iwamura said he met Rays left fielder Carl Crawford and exchanged jerseys with him. He hopes Crawford remembers him.
Third base is Iwamura's best position. He is known to have a slick glove and a strong arm. He also gives the Rays some flexibility in the field, as he also can play second, outfield and first base while adding a left-handed bat to the lineup.
"I think his versatility is something that is very attractive to us," Friedman said. "Obviously he's a multiple Gold Glove winner in Japan and has proven that over time. With his athleticism, we feel confident he can play other positions as well. So for us, versatility was one thing that attracted us to him -- but also his ability to be a little bit of a spark plug and his ability to hit for extra-base hits. ... We don't expect that his power will translate quite as well [in the Major Leagues] as it did in Japan, but we think he will hit for more extra-base hits. He's an exciting player."
Given B.J. Upton's inconsistent play at third base, Iwamura appears to be the front-runner to play third for the Rays, but Friedman did not concede the position.
"I would not put a specific position on any of our guys right now," Friedman said. "It's Dec. 15. All [the signing has done] is add versatility to our roster. As everybody knows, we were beset by injuries last year early in the year. And so we've created depth. And the way we look at it, it's a very good problem to have. And things will sort itself out over time. And today we're focused on how excited we are to add him to our organization. It's way too difficult on Dec. 15 to get into specifics about who will play where and who's going to hit where in the lineup."
Friedman said Iwamura was not given assurances about playing any particular position and recounted an anecdote from his dinner with Iwamura and Maddon to illustrate Iwamura's state of mind.
"He had the perfect attitude," Friedman said. "He asked Joe how many gloves he should bring to Spring Training, and he's anxious to do whatever he can to help this team win games next season."
Asked about his position preference, Iwamura said he preferred third since that is the position he has played his entire career.
"But I'm up for the challenge of second base or [the outfield] if asked to do so," he said.
Iwamura is the second player the Rays' new ownership has procured after going through the Japanese posting system to obtain negotiating rights. Reliever Shinji Mori was signed prior to the 2006 season before suffering a torn labrum during Spring Training to end his season.
Iwamura is the third Japanese player signed by the Rays in their brief history, as right-hander Hideo Nomo was signed by the previous ownership and pitched for the team during the 2005 season.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.