Rays land Chavez, bid farewell to Iwamura
Club passes on infielder's '10 option, gains Bucs righty
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays have traded Akinori Iwamura to the Pirates for right-handed reliever Jesse Chavez.
The deal was finalized Tuesday morning, but the announcement wasn't made until Tuesday night to give the Rays a chance to contact Iwamura in Japan once the sun had risen. The Rays actually traded Iwamura prior to exercising the $4.85 million club option for his services for the 2010 season, which the Pirates, obviously, will exercise. Had the Rays not traded Iwamura and not exercised his option, they would have been obligated to pay a $550,000 buyout and Iwamura would have become a free agent.
"With the depth we have at second with [Ben] Zobrist and [Reid] Brignac and Sean Rodriguez, it's not clear right now how things will shake out or what we're going to do [at second base]," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "But it's an area where we had some depth.
"And so once it was clear to us that we were not going to pick up his option, we went out and tried to find a match in terms of a team that was anxious to acquire him. And Pittsburgh has been all over us for about a month now about him and really liked him. They felt like he was a good fit for them and they're getting a really good player."
Chavez, 26, went 1-4 with a 4.01 ERA in 73 appearances during his rookie season with the Pirates in 2009.
"Jesse's a guy who spent all year in the big leagues with the Pirates and has great arm strength," Friedman said. "He's got some swing-and-miss stuff. And now it's about trying to harness it and have it play that way at the Major League level.
"He had success this year, but his ability is even greater in terms of his stuff. And sometimes guys take a little bit longer to mature, and we feel like he's got a real upside and has a chance to be a really good reliever."
Rays fans will never forget the moment just over a year ago in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series when Iwamura stabbed Jed Lowrie's bad-hop grounder, had a moment of indecision about whether to flip the ball to shortstop Jason Bartlett, then headed to second base. Once his foot touched the bag for the forceout, the Rays were headed to the World Series.
That postseason highlight provided by Iwamura was one of the many he delivered during his three-year stint with the Rays. During those three years, Iwamura played third base and second base, hitting .281 with 14 home runs and 104 RBIs in 344 games.
"It's tough to put into words what Aki's meant to this organization," Friedman said. "I cite this example a lot when talking about the transformation from '07 to'08, how selfless Aki was when we sat him down at the end of '07 and talked to him about moving to second base. And essentially his comment was, 'Whatever it takes to help the team win.' And I think all of his teammates saw that and really respected that, as did the organization. So that's just one anecdote. But he's meant a lot to this organization both on and off the field."
Iwamura saw his 2009 season shortened by an injury that occurred in an Interleague game with the Marlins when Chris Coghlan barreled into him at second base. Iwamura was taking a throw from pitcher Dan Wheeler and had his foot planted on the bag when Coghlan slid into him. He was taken off the field on a cart and was on crutches following the game having suffered an injury that required surgery to his left knee.
Iwamura returned for the last month of the season to finish with a .290 batting average, one home run and 22 RBIs.
Reaching across the Pacific Ocean in December of 2006 for help, the Rays signed Iwamura to a three-year contract worth a guaranteed $7.7 million with a club option for a fourth year at $4.25 million.
In November of 2006, the Rays won negotiating rights to Iwamura through the posting system that enables Japanese players to play in the United States with a high bid of $4.5 million -- paid to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows -- that topped bids by the Indians and Padres.
Iwamura, 30, made $1.8 million in 2007, $2.4 million in 2008, and $3.25 million in 2009. The club had a $4.25 million option for the 2010 season or a $250,000 buyout. The contract also had escalating bonuses based on plate appearances in the first three years.
Iwamura was a five-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove recipient with the Yakult Swallows of the Japanese Central League, where he had a .300 career average with 188 home runs and 570 RBIs in eight seasons. He hit at least 30 home runs and batted .300 or better in each of his final three seasons in Japan, setting a Yakult record for most home runs by a Japanese native with 44 in 2004. In 2006 he played in a career-high 145 games and batted .311, fifth best in the Central League.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.