tampabay.com

Newest Ray packs punch, glove

Infielder Akinori Iwamura gets raves as "a complete player."

By MARC TOPKIN
Published December 16, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays spent a month of their time and more than $12-million of their money to make Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura their first - and perhaps only - significant addition of the offseason.

So what are they getting?

"We think Aki is a complete player," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He's versatile and skilled defensively in multiple positions. He can handle the bat and provide a spark to our offense. He has the type of ability that can help us win games in a multitude of ways."

The Rays have high expectations for Iwamura pronounced ee-wah-moo-rah - 15-20 home runs, an average close to .300, sparkplug-type production, strong defense - though they don't know exactly how they'll use him.

He could be the starter at third, where he won six Gold Gloves and was an All-Star five times in eight seasons for the Yakult Swallows, and said Friday that he would prefer to stay. Or at second, where the Rays are considering moving him. Or as a super utilityman, playing every day while moving around the infield and even the outfield.

The Rays won't know what they are going to do until they see for themselves what he does best and - pending other moves - who will be around him.

It probably will take longer for them to know how Iwamura, 26, is going to do.

An immediate hit, like Hideki Matsui with the Yankees? A grand failure, like Kaz Matsui with the Mets? A steady contributor, like Tadahito Iguchi with the White Sox?

"We expect him to have success," Friedman said.

Iwamura admitted, through an interpreter, to "some uneasiness, some worries" about what he called a "huge challenge," but said he wouldn't have made the jump if he wasn't confident.

Rays officials have only seen him play a few games live in the spring World Baseball Classic - something of a risk given a potential commitment of more than $17-million, including the $4.55-million posting fee and a fourth-year option - but say after extensive video scouting and research they are confident he can make the transition athletically and culturally.

He already has intrigued them with a personality manager Joe Maddon describes as "gregarious and flamboyant," and should continue to do so, with a nickname of Top Gun, a splashy Web site (gun1.nifty.com) and a preference to wear uniform No. 1 and his hair colored and long.

The Rays know his power - he averaged 35-plus homers over the past three seasons - isn't likely to translate (especially since he played in tiny Jingu Stadium, with its 298-foot foul lines). And they have reason to be concerned that his high number of strikeouts - 447 in 427 games since 2004 - could be a problem.

But most impressions are good. John Bale, who pitched against Iwamura for three years, expects him to do well.

"He's everything they say he is," said Bale, who is Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier's brother-in-law. "He's got everything: good speed, good range, he's got some power, a smart baserunner. He's just a great player. I'm surprised he hadn't made the move earlier."

Indians executive Robby Thompson also was impressed after a scouting trip: "He's a very athletic guy, very agile. I like the way he plays. He's got a lot of things that will work over here."

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, based on video scouting and conversation, said Iwamura may be as dynamic as star shortstop Jimmy Rollins. ESPN and XM Radio analyst Orestes Destrade compared him to Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, with a better arm. "He's exciting," Destrade said. "That's exactly what he is."

Iwamura, who is guaranteed $7.7-million over three years and could make $12.7-million over four, said he just wants to do what he can for the team. "Hopefully," he said, "I can help Tampa Bay win."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays/.

 

Here's the deal

The Rays have committed a minimum of $12.25-million to sign Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura to a three-year contract and could spend $17.5-million over four years.

Salary

2007: $1.8-million

2008: $2.4-million

2009: $3.25-million

2010: Team option, $4.25- to $5.25-million (based on getting 500 plate appearances per season) OR a buyout of $250,000- $750,000

Posting fee

$4.55-million to Yakult

Perks

Full-time translator.

Undisclosed number of trips between Japan and United States for his family.

English lessons.

Benefit

Free agency at end of the contract rather than the standard six years.