Today’s featured player is Akinori Iwamura, a left-handed hitting third baseman for the Yakult Swallows. Although Iwamura is not yet a free agent, he reportedly will be posted this offseason after several years of his requests to that effect were turned down. He was primarily a third-baseman in Japan; however, MLBTradeRumors.com reports that he’d be willing to play 2B, SS, or even CF in the majors.
Drafted by the Swallows in the second round of the 1997 draft out of high school, Iwamura will be just 28 years old next season. He took over the Swallows’ third base job for good in 2000 after spending a few years in the Japanese minor league and on the Yakult bench, and has been a fixture ever since.
Despite standing just 5’9″ tall and weighing only 175 pounds, Iwamura features a high level of play in many facets of his game. First of all, he’s a big-time power threat: the past three years, he’s averaged 26 doubles and 35 homers a year in a shortened season (142 games per year over that span). In addition to his power, he has shown decent plate discipline, walking 12.5 times per 100 AB over the past three years. He’s not just an offensive threat, either; he won Gold Gloves for his play at third in 2004 and 2005 (2006 Gold Gloves have not been awarded as of this article’s writing). In his finest season to date, 2004, he cranked 44 home runs in just 611 plate appearances in a mild pitcher’s park.
If Iwamura has one weakness, it is his proclivity to swing and miss. He has improved in this respect each of the past few seasons, but still whiffed 128 times in just 546 at bats this season. In 2004, the year he hit 44 homers, he struck out an astounding 173 times in 533 at bats; that’s once every 3.08 ABs.
My expectations for Iwamura in MLB are somewhat modest for three reasons: his size, his contact problems, and his good but not great Japanese numbers. A longer article on NPB/MLB translations is forthcoming; what work I’ve done so far indicates that Iwamura’s power should be expected to decline significantly in the presence of bigger parks and tougher competition. His profile is not altogether dissimilar from that of Tadahito Iguchi. Iguchi hit approximately .337/.418/.565 his last two years in Japan, and .280/.347/.430 in his first two seasons as a White Sox. Iguchi, it should also be noted, is both taller and heavier than Iwamura (although he hit for less power in Japan, making the comparison somewhat moot). Iwamura over the past three seasons has a .310/.386/.561 AVG/OBP/SLG line, displaying more isolated power than Iguchi, but also a lower batting average and similar plate discipline.
If Iwamura decides to shorten his swing in America like Matsui did, he probably can cut down his strikeouts, but will definitely lose power as well. If he doesn’t change it, he might struggle to maintain a high enough average to remain an every-day regular. A back-of-the envelope projection for him playing in MLB next year might be .275/.336/.425 in a neutral park (computed by applying Aaron Gleeman’s multiples for AVG/ISOD/ISOP from his Kenji Johjima projection). That line might be acceptable at second base, but will likely prove disappointing to teams that expect more out of their corner infield slots. Despite this, I expect Iwamura to garner a posting fee in the $5-$10m range and an annual salary of $6-$8m per year. If your team signs him, I hope for your sake that he outperforms my projection.