January 29, 2010

I Guess Pokey Reese Was Not Available

PITTSBURGH, Pa. / January 29, 2010

The Pirates made a major upgrade to their lineup in the offseason by trading for Akinori Iwamura. One of two new faces expected to start on Opening Day, Akinori was an accomplished star in Japanese baseball before establishing himself as a solid leadoff hitter and defender from 2007-09 with Tampa Bay.

In a lineup full of young players with breakout potential, Iwamura is an established and consistent veteran. At age 31 there's no reason to think he won't continue his solid play. He should have a steadying force both in the lineup and at second base.

Just as importantly, the acquisition of a player with only one year remaining on his contract signalled that the Pirates cared about 2010 after punting 2009 and 2008. Although I liked the wild but effective reliever Jesse Chavez, the Chavez-Iwamura swap clearly is a positive move for those of us who want to see success sooner rather than later.

In Japan Iwamura was a straight up power hitter. In his career year of 2004 he hit .300 with 44 home runs and 103 RBI, and he had 158 home runs total before coming over to the U.S. for the 2007 season to play for the Devil Rays.

He showed good on base and run scoring skills in '07, hitting .285/.359/.411 with 82 runs scored in 123 games. He also played solid defense at third base. The following year, he moved to second base. He scored 92 runs hitting leadoff in a lineup that led the Rays to the AL pennant, and hit .274/.349/.380 in the regular season and .273/.342/.409 in the postseason. Last year he was hurt for more than half the season but still put up similar numbers at .290/.355/.390. On the field, like at the plate, he's steady if not spectacular, and is one of the more respected defensive second basemen in baseball. His ability to play third base as well is a definite plus, especially compared to Delwyn Young who couldn't even play second.

While former Pirates 2B Freddy Sanchez was a good line drive hitter, Akinori Iwamura is much more effective at the top of the order with his .354 career on base percentage. I'd expect that OBP to rise with the move to a much easier league and division, and considering the history of several Japanese players who maintained and improved their skills into their 30s as they got used to the U.S. game.

For 2010, Bill James has Iwamura hitting .290/.367/.389. Coupled with above average defense, that's just what the Pirates need for their #2 hitter. He's not going to be a star - but championship teams are built on above average hitters. It also helps that he bats lefthanded given the dimensions of PNC Park. His acquisition eliminates a huge hole in their lineup and gives Bucco fans one more player who is definitely not a question mark.

Most championship teams have maybe one Hall of Famer, a couple stars, and a couple guys having career years. But what they also have are solid if unheralded players. "Above average major league player" has become a Neil Huntington cliche, but it's also exactly what Iwamura is and what wins championships.

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