How will the loss of Kenji Johjima impact the Seattle Mariners' staff?
Everyone said all the right things when Kenji Johjima decided to return to Japan, leaving behind a two-year deal and $16 million. Johjima thanked the Seattle Mariners organization for the opportunity and expressed how difficult a decision this was, ultimately tipping the scales in favor of being closer to his family and friends.
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik was more than gracious, "We are very appreciative of everything Kenji has done for this organization over the past four seasons," Zduriencik told the Tacoma News Tribune. "We respect his decision to return home. Joh has been a terrific teammate and a great competitor."
But somewhere lurking beneath the surface, there had to be a sigh of relief for all of Seattle. Offensively, Johjima took a step backward each year after a solid rookie season (2006) where he hit .291 with 18 home runs. More than that, though, his handling of the pitching staff had gotten to the point of mutiny.
Because Johjima had learned his craft by playing more than a decade overseas, his style of calling pitches during a game was heavily influenced by Japanese tradition; fastballs are rarely used early in at-bats, and almost exclusively so once the count turned in the batter's favor. This difference in mindset was largely responsible for prompting several Mariners pitchers to ask manager Don Wakamatsu for a "new favorite receiver," and the statistics from 2009 clearly show this was not something simply imagined by the staff:
Was Rob Johnson really that big a difference? Apparently so. In addition to King Felix posting a 15-2 record with the 25-year-old calling the shots behind the plate, Johnson's handling of the entire Seattle staff was nothing short of masterful. His 3.22 "catcher's ERA" was the best in all of the major leagues, but more telling was Seattle's 46-29 record in games started by Johnson, compared with a 28-39 record with Johjima.
Clearly, the comfort level between the staff and Johnson cannot easily be dismissed, but despite the past success, the catcher may not be starting on a regular basis for Seattle in 2010. Johnson had surgery on both of his hips in the offseason, and is only now getting ready to see live game action this spring.
Johnson is confident that his "new hips" will allow him to improve his ability to throw out baserunners -- his 29.3 percent paled in comparison with Johjima's 50 percent of would-be thieves removed from the basepaths -- as well as his production with the bat. Johnson hit just .213 last season, but has told reporters this spring he believes his 2010 batting average will end up somewhere between .265 and .290.
However, there still is a lot of concern that Johnson simply won't be able to handle the rigors of catching four or more times a week, at least not right away. That's where Adam Moore comes in. Moore has been so impressive since being taken in the sixth round of the 2006 draft, that Seattle had no problem trading away "catcher of the future" Jeff Clement, and giving that title to the rookie, who started 2009 at Double-A and ended up playing six September games with Seattle.
Wakamatsu has nothing but good things to say about Moore, and with Johnson having missed most of this spring, Moore has proved himself more than capable of handling the defensive duties. Even more important was the fact that both Moore and Felix Hernandez seemed comfortable with each other after their first time working together on March 14.
If Moore is going to leave camp with a spot on the 25-man roster -- and all signs point to that being the case -- he's not going to simply ride the bench. Until Johnson proves himself fit, Moore will play more often than not, and even once Johnson is ready to play several games a week, it may well end up being a 50-50 time-share behind the plate.
Still, the biggest impact of Kenji Johjima no longer residing at Safeco Field may yet bear fruit down the line. Jarrod Washburn is still sitting out there in free-agent land, and if the presence of Johjima was even a little bit of an obstacle for his return, that's clearly no longer the case. With Cliff Lee, Doug Fister and Garrett Olson all a bit banged up and Erik Bedard's return to the rotation up in the air, it would make sense for the team to sign Washburn.
Regardless, when all is said and done, with all the new faces in town for the Mariners in 2010 -- Chone Figgins, Cliff Lee, Milton Bradley, Eric Byrnes, Casey Kotchman, Ryan Garko, Brandon League and more -- the player who may be this season's MVP could well be the one who simply chose to go home.