Iwakuma reportedly close to deal with Dodgers

IwakumaNew general manager Jerry Dipoto has made one thing clear from the start of an already busy offseason for the Mariners. Priority No. 1 was to re-sign free agent right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma. But that goal appears in jeopardy now with multiple reports surfacing Sunday night that the 34-year-old is close to an agreement with the Dodgers.

ESPN analyst Jim Bowden reported on Twitter that Iwakuma had agreed to a contract with the Dodgers, but numerous other reports followed that no deal was yet in place, though it could be imminent. The Mariners had no comment or confirmation of any reports involving Iwakuma.

Iwakuma turned down Seattle’s one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer to become a free agent and after a number of the top available starters — David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman, Jeff Samardzija and John Lackey – came off the board in recent days, his name surged to the fore of much speculation as executives from all 30 Major League teams began gathering Sunday at the Opryland Hotel on the eve of the four-day Winter Meetings.

Both the Dodgers and Giants were reportedly pursuing Iwakuma on Sunday, looking to finalize deals before the Meetings began.

Because they made Iwakuma a qualifying offer, the Mariners will receive a compensatory Draft pick at the end of the first round of next June’s First-Year Player Draft if he does sign elsewhere.

Iwakuma has quietly been one of the American League’s top right-handers the past four years, posting a 47-25 record and 3.17 ERA with a 1.082 WHIP. And while he missed 10 weeks with a strained lat muscle last season, he still went 9-5 with a 3.54 ERA and threw a no-hitter against the Orioles in August.

The Mariners have ace Felix Hernandez atop their rotation, with promising 23-year-old Taijuan Walker coming off a strong first full season in the Majors and highly regarded left-hander James Paxton trying to get healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. Dipoto added Rays right-hander Nathan Karns via a trade last month and the club also has lefties Vidal Nuno and Roenis Elias returning and both have Minor League options, while Mike Montgomery also returns, though he’s out of options and thus provides less roster flexibility.

But Dipoto would like to bolster that group with a quality veteran like Iwakuma, who has been Seattle’s No. 2 or 3 starter since moving into the rotation in mid-2012 after signing with the Mariners following an outstanding 11-year career in Japan.

Iwakuma was an American League All-Star in 2013 and finished third in the AL Cy Young voting that season after going 14-6 with a 3.66 ERA. Age and durability are the main questions regarding the 34-year-old as he missed the first month of 2014 with a strained finger tendon and then was sidelined last year by the lat strain.

If Iwakuma does go elsewhere, the Mariners will almost certainly turn toward other remaining free-agent pitchers or pursue the trade market for a replacement.

Johnny Cueto is the biggest name remaining among the free-agent arms, though he figures to be in the blockbuster category that Dipoto has indicated the Mariners wouldn’t be pursuing.  Other prominent free agent pitchers include Mike Leake, Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Kazmir, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo, Mat Latos, Doug Fister, Mark Buehrle and Bartolo Colon.

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