Struggling Iwamura's future with Pirates murky
Pirates second baseman Aki Iwamura on his struggles: "I'm just not getting the results in numbers. That's it. But I know it's important to have the results."
Share with others:
LOS ANGELES -- When the Pirates traded for Aki Iwamura over the winter, they openly broached the idea that he might be their long-term solution at second base, even though he was 31, would make a team-high $4.85 million, could become a free agent in the fall of 2010, and might not have been the best fit in coming from a highly talented team in Tampa Bay.
To date, nothing would suggest Iwamura will play baseball in Pittsburgh beyond this summer.
Not on any front.
Start with the most obvious: Iwamura is not performing well, offensively or defensively, certainly not to the degree where management could remotely entertain approaching him with the kind of multiyear contract needed to keep him.
Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: WGN, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (1-2, 4.83) vs. RHP Ryan Dempster (2-1, 2.78).
Key matchup: Pirates hitters vs. world. When they score three or fewer runs, they are 1-14. When they score four-plus, they are 9-1.
Of note: Dempster is 1-0 with a 1.32 ERA in two road starts this year and won two September starts last year vs. the Pirates, against whom he is 6-7, 5.46 ERA for his career.
At the plate, Iwamura's average is at .214 despite batting first or second with solid protection from Andrew McCutchen. He has drawn 14 walks, which has kept afloat a .317 on-base percentage -- still about 60-70 points below a proficient top-of-the-order type -- and reached base safely in 20 of 23 starts. But there has been little production and less pop, with five extra-base hits in 89 at-bats.
"Hot and cold," manager John Russell said of Iwamura Sunday at Dodger Stadium. "One day, he'll look really good and drive a few balls. The next day, he doesn't have really the same approach. We need -- not only him -- but a few guys to start swinging the bats. We're not scoring."
To be sure, Iwamura's struggle is not isolated: The Pirates scored just eight runs in losing three of four to Los Angeles and have four other everyday players batting below .235. But their offensive issues -- as with all teams -- can be traced to on-base percentage, and their .310 figure is the National League's second-lowest. That figure -- again, as with all teams -- usually can be traced to the top of the order.
Iwamura was asked in an interview Sunday, through a translator, about having ups and downs offensively, and he disputed the notion.
"I don't think I have any downs," Iwamura said. "I'm just not getting the results in numbers. That's it. But I know it's important to have the results."
In the field, Iwamura's .971 fielding percentage, including three errors, ranks 21st among the league's 23 qualified second basemen. And his range, an element difficult to quantify but highly visible to professional scouts and casual fans alike, has been negligible to either side.
There is this, too: The Pirates' infield as a whole has been laborious at turning double plays, and Iwamura has played a role in that even beyond mishaps like the one Sunday where he turned a routine pivot into a throw over the first baseman's head. No error was charged because the runner did not advance, but it later cost the team a run.
According to the statistics-based Web site FanGraphs.com, Iwamura's minus-.5 rating in turning double plays is second-worst among all second basemen in the majors.
For a franchise spoiled for years by the one of the game's best double-play duos in Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, the difference has been all the more stark.
The likely possible explanation for Iwamura's defensive regression is that he continues to wear a brace on the left knee that was injured in 2009 with Tampa Bay and cost him half the season. He gets little push off that leg when breaking for grounders, and he is slow on the basepaths, as was seen again Saturday when he failed to steal second despite a great jump on the Los Angeles pitcher.
Still, Iwamura has insisted he is healthy and invariably has made himself available to play.
He was asked on three separate occasions during the 10-game trip that just ended if he is hurt, and each time the same reply came firmly: "I'm good. No problem."
Another possible explanation is that, as two scouts observed within the past two months, Iwamura appears "thicker," to use the term of one of those scouts, than he was with the Rays. His conditioning is, by all accounts, excellent, but he already had a stocky frame, and added bulk can reduce mobility. He is listed at 5 feet 9, 200 pounds.
All of the above defies Iwamura's history, which is what makes it all difficult to explain.
In three years with Tampa Bay, he batted .285, .374 and .290. Going back to his fine career in Japan, he was a six-time Gold Glove defender at third base, and he was no less sound for the Rays in one year at third, the past two at second as he had to slide across to clear space for Evan Longoria.
Moreover, Iwamura was a highly popular player and teammate with the Rays, who lost in his first season but went to the World Series in his second and contended again last year.
On the intangible level, Iwamura, despite knowing little English, visibly gets along well within the Pirates' world. But there have been suggestions in the Japanese media that he might not feel entirely comfortable in his new surroundings.
Asked Sunday if he is happy to be with the Pirates, he smiled broadly and, without the translator's help, replied, "Yes!"
What about going from contention to a team that has not won in so long?
"I haven't always been playing on a winning team. What I'm trying to do here is some new things, figure out what's going on as a team ... for all of us, to try some new things to get better."
At the same time, he acknowledged that the team's epic seven-game losing streak of blowouts two weeks ago was "very frustrating, very tough."
No one has more invested in Iwamura than Neal Huntington, the Pirates' general manager who acquired him Nov. 3 from Tampa Bay for reliever Jesse Chavez, from the money already spent to a potential trade return down later this year.
Huntington cited Iwamura's plate patience as a plus.
"Aki has given us many quality at-bats and made opposition starters work," he said. "His transition to a new league has gone fine and we expect he will improve as he becomes more comfortable."
"He has been solid on the pivot and has handled the position well for someone entering only his third full season as a second baseman. While not always textbook mechanically, Aki continues to regain confidence in his knee and should continue improving on the defensive side of the ball, as well."
Whatever becomes of Iwamura, the positive for the Pirates is that they have gotten strong performances from the two players in line to replace him.
Andy LaRoche, also acquired by Huntington as part of the Jason Bay trade, is batting .323 and has been the Pirates' only consistent performer other than McCutchen. He also has been strong at third base, but that is top prospect Pedro Alvarez's current position with Class AAA Indianapolis, so a move might take place for LaRoche as Iwamura did for Longoria.
Neil Walker, the 2004 first-round draft pick out of Pine-Richland High School, is the other. Adapting very well to expanding beyond third base -- he has played second, first and the corner outfield spots in Indianapolis -- and he has been outstanding with the bat: .330 average, four home runs, 19 RBIs, 12 walks and a .402 on-base percentage.
First Published May 4, 2010 12:11 am