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Mariners notebook: Iwakuma on verge of guaranteeing his 2017 contract

Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who starts Wednesday, needs just five more innings this season to turn a club option for next season into a guaranteed deal.
Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who starts Wednesday, needs just five more innings this season to turn a club option for next season into a guaranteed deal. AP

Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is about to cash his Christmas bonus.

Iwakuma needs to pitch just five innings Wednesday — or at any point through the remainder of the season — to lock in a $14 million vesting guarantee for next season.

Under Iwakuma’s contract, signed last Dec. 18, the Mariners hold a $10 million option for next season (with a $500,000 buyout), but that shifts to a guaranteed contract for $14 million if he pitches 162 innings.

Iwakuma enters Wednesday’s start against the Yankees at 157 innings.

"I don’t know where we’d be without him," manager Scott Servais said. "You look at it, you see it and you’re watching it and you think, `How is he doing it?’ But he pitches. He really pitches. It’s the curve. It’s the slider. It’s the split.

"If you look at any one of his four pitches in a vacuum, they’re probably average. But when you put them all together, with his deception and his ability to make pitches, it plays up."

Iwakuma is 14-8 with a 3.78 ERA in 25 starts. He leads the Mariners in victories, starts, innings and strikeouts. His steady presence allowed the club to weather injuries to every other member of the season-opening rotation.

"That’s part of my job," he said in early July with Felix Hernandez on the disabled list. "I’m the No. 2 guy. With the King out, we have to stay patient and step up until he comes back.

"When he comes back, I know it’s going to be a lot easier for us."

The Mariners appeared to lose Iwakuma last December when he agreed to a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $45 million. The Mariners roughly matched the financial package but weren’t willing to guarantee a third year.

When the Dodgers backed away from their agreement after examining the results of Iwakuma’s physical examination — for reasons that still aren’t clear — Iwakuma and the Mariners resumed negotiations.

General manager Jerry Dipoto announced the deal at the club’s Christmas party. It only guaranteed one year but included club options for two additional years that could turn into guarantees based on performance.

The total package had the potential to exceed the Dodgers’ guarantee and, at that point, Iwakuma was willing to bet on himself.

"I feel very confident," he said in December. "This is the place that I’ve been able to pitch for the last four years. Obviously, I’m going to take one year at a time and let the rest take care of itself."

Iwakuma has already triggered a $500,000 performance bonus this season to his $12 million guaranteed deal by reaching 150 innings. He gets another $500,000 each if he reaches 160, 170, 180 and 190 innings.

All are within reach.

The third year in the contract, 2018, becomes guaranteed if Iwakuma pitches 162 innings next season or reaches a 2016-17 total of 324 innings. Right now, that seems a good bet.

Two other free-agent signings, outfielder Nori Aoki and catcher Chris Iannetta, face bigger challenges to trigger their contract clauses with, entering Tuesday, 38 games remaining in the season.

Aoki can trigger a vesting option next season for $5.5 million by reaching 480 plate appearances. Through Monday, he had 379.

Iannetta can convert a $4.25 million club option for next year into a guaranteed deal by starting 100 games. He is currently at 79 but has started only 10 times since the Mariners recalled Mike Zunino on July 20 from Triple-A Tacoma.

WALKER RECALLED

The Mariners, as expected, filled their need for a starting pitcher Tuesday by recalling right-hander Taijuan Walker from Triple-A Tacoma prior to their game against the New York Yankees at Safeco Field.

Walker made two starts at Tacoma following his Aug. 8 demotion after going 4-7 with a 4.10 ERA in 17 big-league starts. Manager Scott Servais and other club officials said pointedly at the time that Walker’s demotion was performance-based.

The Mariners sent Walker to Tacoma after he made just one start following a month-long stay on the disabled list because of tendinitis in his right foot. He gave up six runs over four innings on Aug. 6 in a no-decision against the Angels.

Walker’s most-recent start was Aug. 18 at Nashville (Athletics), when he pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings in a 6-4 victory. Nashville has the best record in the Pacific Coast League.

To clear space for Walker, the Mariners optioned right-hander Cody Martin to Tacoma. Martin started Monday against the Yankees and got a no-decision in a 7-5 victory after allowing five runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Martin is 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in seven games, including two starts, over three big-league tours. He is 9-7 with a 3.93 ERA in 23 games, including 18 starts, for Tacoma.

ZYCH ACTIVATED

In another anticipated move, the Mariners activated right-handed reliever Tony Zych from the 60-day disabled list and recalled him from his rehab assignment at Tacoma.

The Mariners cleared space on the 25-man roster by optioning first baseman/outfielder Stefen Romero to the Rainiers. He went 1-for-2 with a walk in his only game following an Aug. 19 recall.

"We didn’t necessarily see this coming when we brought him here," Servais said, "but with where our bullpen has been, and the overuse of those guys, we thought we needed a fresh arm."

The move restores the bullpen to its normal complement of seven relievers but leaves Adam Lind as the roster’s only first baseman.

A left-handed hitter, Lind has severe left/right splits throughout his career and spent most of the season in a platoon situation with Dae-Ho Lee, who was optioned to Tacoma when Romero was recalled.

"It’ll be a challenge," Servais admitted. "We’re looking at some lefties coming up in Chicago and Texas. Lindo will get the majority of the time. (Shawn) O’Malley is the ultimate utility guy. You may see him over there in some games."

Zych hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since being diagnosed with tendinitis in his rotator cuff after a May 1 appearance against Kansas City. He had four scoreless one-inning rehab appearances.

"A took a lot longer (than expected), obviously," Zych said. "It was a learning process for me, but I weathered through it. Everything is good. The last few games have been good. Velocity has been good.

"I’m ready to go out there and see what happens.

CRUNCHING NUMBERS

One of Jerry Dipoto’s first stated priorities last September when he became the Mariners’ general manager was to put together a more athletic roster. Many of the club’s off-season moves pointed toward that goal.

Even a casual glance at the stats shows this remains a work in progress.

The Mariners were slightly more than three-quarters of the way through their schedule Tuesday when they continued their three-game series against the New York Yankees at Safeco Field.

They ranked second, through Monday, among the 15 American League clubs in on-base percentage and fourth in earned-run average, slugging percentage and run differential. All are generally viewed as key indicators for success.

Even so, had the season ended Monday — instead of Oct. 2 — they would not have been one of the five clubs in postseason play. They entered Tuesday trailing Baltimore by one game in the race for the final wild-card spot.

Two other stats — tied to athleticism — stand out: defense and base-running.

The Mariners ranked 10th in runs saved above average on defense (as computed by Baseball Info Solutions) at minus-16. Houston ranked first at plus-60 — and the difference in athleticism is readily apparent when the two play.

And the Mariners had run into 74 outs on the bases, which was the fourth-highest total in the American League. Tellingly, perhaps, the club they’re currently chasing for that final wild-card spot, Baltimore, had the fewest base-running outs at 42.

POSTSEASON DATES

Mariners fans might want to circle Oct. 4 on the calendar.

Just in case.

Major League Baseball’s postseason schedule, announced Tuesday, shows Oct. 4 as the date for the American League wild-card game.

Those who are more optimistic can circle Oct. 6, which is when the two AL Division Series open. All AL games this postseason will be shown on TBS. Fox, Fox Sports 1 and the MLB Network are carrying the National League games.

The World Series begins Oct. 25 in the AL city — how optimistic are you? — and can run as late as Nov. 2. Fox will carry all World Series games.

MINOR DETAILS

The Dominican Mariners became the organization’s fourth affiliate to clinch a postseason berth by clinching the pennant in the Dominican Summer League South Division.

Double-A Jackson, Lo-A Clinton and Rookie Peoria previously clinched postseason spots.

The Mariners have a chance for a seven-for-seven sweep because it’s three remaining affiliates entered play Tuesday atop their divisions: Triple-A Tacoma, Hi-A Bakersfield and Short-A Everett.

***Reliever Mayckol Guaipe began a rehab assignment Monday at Peoria by pitching one scoreless inning. It was his first appearance since May 31 at Tacoma. He was subsequently diagnosed with an elbow injury but opted against surgery.

LOOKING BACK

It was 40 years ago Wednesday — Aug. 23, 1976 — that "Mariners" was selected as the franchise’s nickname after a contest that attracted more than 15,000 entries.

The nickname was entered by Roger Szmodis of Bellevue.

Seattle was awarded an expansion franchise on Feb. 6, 1976 and began play the following season. The cost of the franchise was $5.53 million — or less than eight players on the current roster are making this season.

SHORT HOPS

It was coaches’ day in the M Games, the Mariners’ take-off on the Olympics. First-base coach Casey Candaele won the golf shot (accuracy) gold medal by putting a shot from the right-field upper deck closest to the mark along the left-field line. Third-base coach Manny Acta won the fungo golf gold. It all occurred among much trash talking and taunting…the Mariners’ 92 homers at Safeco Field are more than every club at its home park except Baltimore, which has 107 at Camden Yards…the Mariners lead the majors with 32 three-run homers. Cincinnati ranks second at 28…all 12 runs Monday in the Mariners’ 7-5 victory over the Yankees were scored on home runs. That’s the highest number of runs ever scored in a Mariners game when homers provided all of the runs. The previous high was 11 in a 6-5 victory at Cleveland on May 5, 1999. The previous record at Safeco was nine in Oakland’s 6-3 victory on June 21, 2013.

ON TAP

The Mariners and Yankees conclude their three-game series at 12:40 p.m. Wednesday at Safeco Field with a match-up of former Japanese teammates.

Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (14-8 with a 3.78 ERA) will face New York right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (10-4, 3.24). The two were teammates on the Rakuten Eagles from 2007-11 in Japan’s Pacific League.

The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, which includes 710 ESPN.

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

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