In 2010, the Oakland A's pitching staff finished with the lowest ERA in the American League with a 3.56 mark. They also finished with the fourth-worst offense, in terms of runs scored, in the AL. Consequently, it was assumed that the A's off-season efforts would be focused on improving the team's run-production. It is likely that that will ultimately still be the case, but the A's first big splash of the off-season has come with the possible addition of a top-flight pitcher.
On Monday in Japan it was announced that the A's had won the rights to negotiate exclusively with star Japanese right-handed starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. Iwakuma is a 10-year veteran in the Japanese Professional League. The 29-year-old has a career record of 101-62 and an ERA of 3.32 ERA. He began his career with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. In 2005, he joined the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, for whom he has starred for the past five seasons. The 2008 season was his best year, as he went 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA in 201.2 innings and he won the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young award. He had a 2.82 ERA in 201 innings in 2010.
In addition to his Japanese Professional League experience, Iwakuma has international experience, having represented Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. At the 2009 WBC, Iwakuma had a 1.35 ERA and was on the All-Tournament team.
After the 2010 season, Iwakuma expressed his desire to play in the major leagues and his rights were posted, meaning that all major league teams were given an opportunity to place secret bids to Iwakuma's Golden Eagles team for the rights to negotiate a contract with Iwakuma. The A's placed the highest bid and were awarded the 30-day exclusive negotiating period. If the A's and Iwakuma are unable to come to an agreement, Iwakuma will remain in Japan and the A's bid will be rescinded.
The A's released the following statement after being awarded the negotiating rights: "The Oakland A's are excited to have had our bid for Hisashi Iwakuma accepted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Out of respect for the posting process and for Mr. Iwakuma and his representative, we will not have any comment until the 30 day negotiation period comes to an end."
The A's front office has stated publicly that they are committed to improving the team's offense this off-season, and adding Iwakuma could be key to those efforts, as the A's may opt to dip into their newly enhanced starting pitching depth to acquire a top position player.
Oakland has famously struggled with injury problems over the past few years, and Iwakuma comes with an injury history of his own. He missed much of the 2006 and 2007 seasons with injuries to his shoulder and elbow. However, his best seasons have come since that time and he hasn't made fewer than 24 starts in each of the past three seasons.
Like many of the A's current starters, Iwakuma is a groundball pitcher with good command. He walked only 36 batters in 201 innings last season and he gave up only 11 homeruns. He features a split-finger, as well as a slider and a two-seam and four-seam fastball. The splitter is considered his out-pitch.
Assuming the A's can come to an agreement with Iwakuma and don't trade any of their top starters from the 2010 season, Oakland will enter the 2011 season with five starters who had ERAs at or under 3.50 in 2010: Iwakuma (2.82), Brett Anderson (2.80), Trevor Cahill (2.97), Gio Gonzalez (3.23) and Dallas Braden (3.50).