Bucs acquire Rays' Iwamura for Chavez
Second baseman addresses one of club's biggest needs
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington wasted no time addressing one of the team's most critical offseason needs, doing so before the Hot Stove season even officially began.
On Tuesday, the Pirates acquired second baseman Akinori Iwamura from the Rays in exchange for right-hander Jesse Chavez. The Pirates will take on Iwamura's $4.85 million salary in 2010, a dollar figure that actually makes Iwamura the Pirates' highest paid player at the moment. No cash changed hands in the deal.
"[I'm] very excited for the new challenge," Iwamura said, speaking from his home in Japan and through a translator. "[I'm] very appreciative."
With Iwamura in tow, the Pirates now have their immediate answer at second base. After trading away Freddy Sanchez in July, the Pirates were left with no strong internal replacements. Delwyn Young got his chance to be the team's everyday second baseman for the final two months, but even after intensive daily defensive work with infield coach Perry Hill, Young was not seen as the optimal choice for next season.
"It was a chance more to get an established player," Huntington said. "It returns Delwyn to a [bench] role that he's excelled at. Ultimately, we felt Iwamura was a better fit for long-term."
Young hit. .316 in 38 pinch-hit appearances in 2009.
Iwamura, 30, comes to Pittsburgh after hitting .281 with 103 RBIs in 344 career games over three seasons with the Rays. He spent his first season in the Majors as a third baseman, though the Pirates do not need to use him there.
Huntington said that ideally Iwamura would hit second in the batting order behind Andrew McCutchen. The left-handed hitter batted primarily from the leadoff spot in his first two seasons with the Rays before dropping to the bottom of the order in '09.
Iwamura was limited to only 69 games in '09 and needed left knee surgery to repair a partially torn ACL. Huntington said that the Pirates have not independently examined Iwamura's knee, but that all the medical reports suggest that there will be no lingering issues.
When asked about his knee Tuesday, Iwamura said it has not yet returned to full strength.
"I feel very good, but not 100 percent," he said. "[I'm] still in the rehabbing process right now. In the offseason, [I'll] continue to make progress with the knee. For next season, [I'll] be completely healthy."
According to Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, the Pirates began to show heavy interest in Iwamura in September. Huntington confirmed that Pittsburgh did have three different scouts watching the infielder during the final month of the season to assess his mobility and range, both of which were determined to be fine. Iwamura was wearing a large brace after surgery, and it hasn't yet been determined if that will be needed next season.
Though the Pirates now have their middle infield set with Ronny Cedeno at short and Iwamura at second, the club has lost one of its more consistent relievers with the departure of Chavez. Thrust into a late-inning role in his first full season in the Majors, Chavez finished with a 4.01 ERA in a team-high 73 appearances. He was especially effective against left-handed hitters, limiting them to .228 average in '09.
Ultimately, the Bucs' decision to deal Chavez, who would have been under team control for another five seasons, came down to the general unpredictability of relief pitching.
"It was tough to give up Jesse, but the bullpen is the most difficult area to predict future performance," Huntington said. "In our minds, it was much more difficult to find 600 quality plate appearances than 60 relief appearances."
Iwamura, on the other hand, could be in Pittsburgh for one season. His contract only runs through '10 and features a clause that guarantees he will become a free agent after the season. Huntington expressed interest in the potential of Iwamura staying in Pittsburgh longer if the relationship proves to be mutually beneficial.
"I think the reality is Iwamura is going to have to get comfortable with the city of Pittsburgh," Huntington. "As an organization, we would like to have that get-to-know-you process."
Said Iwamura: "[I'm] definitely interested for the long-term, but first [I] have to do what I can do. We'll see what happens."
Though the timing of this trade may seem odd considering the World Series is still in progress, the Rays and Pirates were working under an unusual timetable to get this deal done. Iwamura's contract required that his '10 option be exercised no later than one day after the end of the World Series or else Tampa Bay would have had to pay the infielder a $550,000 buyout. With the timing of this trade, the Pirates were able to exercise the option and the Rays were able to avoid paying the buyout or losing Iwamura altogether.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.