Hisashi Iwakuma, one of the top starting pitchers in Japan, has hired a new agent as a prelude to coming to Major League Baseball as a free agent in 2012.
Iwakuma, a star right-hander for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, is expected to rank among the elite starters in a free-agent market that could include CC Sabathia, C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Japanese countryman Hiroki Kuroda of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yu Darvish of Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters. Sabathia can become a free agent if he exercises an opt-out clause in his seven-year, $161 million contract with the New York Yankees this winter.
Iwakuma hired Paul Cobbe of Sosnick-Cobbe Sports as his new representative several months ago, but delayed the announcement out of respect for his community and the victims of the March earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, Japan, home of the Eagles. He had also been occupied until recently with rehabilitation from a shoulder injury that sent him to the disabled list in late May. Iwakuma recently rejoined Rakuten and his fastball was clocked at between 89 and 92 miles per hour in his last start.
Although Iwakuma's decision will reverberate throughout Japan, Cobbe said the pitcher does not plan to address his professional future during the Golden Eagles' season.
"Iwakuma-san has instructed me not to discuss Major League Baseball with him during the 2011 season," Cobbe said. "His sole focus is bringing a championship to Rakuten."
Iwakuma, 30, played in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and the 2009 World Baseball Classic. In 2008 he won the Eiji Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
The Oakland Athletics paid a reported $19.1 million posting fee to negotiate with Iwakuma last winter. But talks between the A's and Iwakuma's former agent, Don Nomura, broke down with no resolution, and the pitcher elected to return to Japan after the 30-day negotiating window expired. In early December, Nomura told reporters that the A's were insincere and "never showed any respect" to his client during the discussions.
Since Iwakuma is currently in his 10th professional season in Japan, he will not be subject to a "posting fee" as a prelude to negotiations with a major league club. There are estimates that an MLB team will have to pay a posting fee in the $25 million-to-$50 million range to win the right to negotiate with Darvish this winter.
Senior writer Jerry Crasnick covers Major League Baseball for ESPN.com.