BY SPNW Staff 09:58PM 01/05/2012

Mariners sign Japanese RHP to become starter

Hoping to get lucky in strengthening a strength, the Mariners signed free agent Japanese righthander Hisashi Iwakuma (he-sash-ee e-wah-kuma) Thursday. He will be in the hunt for a job in the starting rotation — if healthy.

Iwakuma had shoulder problems in 2011 (6-7 with a 2.42 ERA and 90 strikeouts and 19 walks in 17 starts), which explains why he came so cheaply — a one-year deal for $1.5 million, although reaching all incentives could raise his take another $3.4 million.

“I think that the contract  serves both parties’ best interests,” Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik told reporters. “I know that he wants to pitch here in the United States. I know he’s enjoyed his short time here in Seattle. He’s very familiar with the organization. And I do think he would like to establish himself here in the States and see what happens.”

Iwakuma, 30, had a 107-69 record in 226 career games with Kintetsu (2001-04) and Rakuten (2005-2011) in the Japan League. He was named the 2008 Pacific League MVP and winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award (Cy Young equivalent) after going 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA (42 ER, 201.2 IP) in 28 starts.

Iwakuma, 6-foot-3  and 170 pounds, tried to come to MLB last year, thinking he was going to make Barry Zito money ($126 million, seven years). The Oakland A’s made a winning bid for his services, posting $19.1 million. But a contract deal could not be reached, and he stayed in Japan. After the season, he changed agents and became an international free agent, eliminating the need to go through the posting process.

The health concern is that his fastball, once at 95 mph, no longer reaches 90 mph, according to scouting reports. The only other team serious about his services reportedly was the Baltimore Orioles.

Iwakuma was a two-time selection for the Best Nine Award (2004, 2008) and was a two-time NPB All-Star (2004, 2008). Iwakuma also starred for Japan in the 2004  Summer Olympics (bronze medal) and the 2009 World Baseball Classic gold medal).

The Mariners now have 39 players on the 40-man major league roster.

Another Japanese player, shortstop Munenori Kawasaki, told reporters in Japan he’ll be signing with the Mariners. “I’ll be going to Arizona in February to compete for a job,” he said, according to an Associated Press story.

Kawasaki, 30, will sign a minor-league contract but will compete for the backup shortstop job with the Mariners. He hit .267 last season for the Softbank Hawks.