Mariners catch a rising star in Johjima

Mariners catch a rising star

The Mariners are opening the door to another trailblazer from Japan.

Already super-successful with the signing of right fielder Ichiro Suzuki five years ago -- making him the first position player to make the transition from Japan to the Major Leagues -- the Mariners on Monday announced that they have signed catcher Kenji Johjima to a three-year contract for a reported $16.5 million.

The 29-year-old Johjima becomes the first catcher from Japan to sign with an MLB organization.

"This was a unique opportunity for us," general manager Bill Bavasi said. "We had a chance to acquire offense at a premium position and we went after it aggressively. We are excited to sign Kenji, and believe that this signing is one more step in our transition.

"As soon as he steps on the field, he makes our Major League roster better, and that's what we needed as we headed into this offseason. It is also significant for us since this will not involve compensation during next year's amateur draft."

The biggest question in this never-done-before signing is how Johjima can communicate with the non-Japanese-speaking pitchers on manager Mike Hargrove's staff.

Bavasi said during a conference call Monday night that Johjima, who speaks limited English, already has started working with a tutor in Japan to learn English and Spanish.

"When we met with him [in Seattle], he made a point of using English as much as he could," Bavasi said. "That leads me to believe he will be fine. He is going to have to pick up English and Spanish to a limited degree and we have to have some patience with him."

Hargrove agreed that the language issue isn't a huge problem.

"I think, given the facts he has started his English lessons and has a strong desire to play over here, language won't be an issue," he said. "I don't anticipate it taking him a long time to catch up. Kenji is a good baseball player, number one. And it has been my experience that good players know how to get people out."

Johjima has a career batting average of .299 with 211 home runs and 699 RBIs in 11 seasons (1,117 games) with the Pacific League's Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. He batted .309 (127-for-411) with 24 home runs and 57 RBIs over 116 games in an injury-shortened 2005 season. Johjima broke the tibia in his left leg on Sept. 22 and missed the reminder of the season.

Bavasi said that a recent MRI showed that the injury wasn't completely healed, but added that it was a clean break and "it's a non-issue."

Johjima, who is in Japan, sent word through the Mariners that he is excited about the challenge he faces.

"It is an honor to become a member of the Seattle Mariners," he said through a club official. "They were the first team to come to me and they have pursued me with great sincerity, which meant lot to me. While my family and I visited Seattle earlier this month, they provided us with tremendous hospitality and made us feel very comfortable and at home. They really made us feel this is the place to be.

"Even though today is one of the happiest moments of my life, I fully understand that I have a lot of work ahead of me. I need to learn about my pitchers and I need to work hard to earn their trust. I will do everything I can to adjust to the Major Leagues and I hope that I can help [the Mariners] get back into the playoffs."

The Mariners believe they can take a step in that direction with Johjima in the lineup.

The Mariners used seven catchers last season and none of them produced much in the way of offense. The seven receivers -- Dan Wilson, Pat Borders, Miguel Olivo, Wiki Gonzalez, Miguel Ojeda, Rene Rivera and Yorvit Torrealba -- were a combined 113-for-524 (.216) with 10 home runs and 46 RBIs.

"There's always a risk in a multiyear, high-dollar contract," Bavasi said. "But if anyone was to say the catching has been bad [offensively] and it can't get any worse, there is some truth to that."

Johjima has been described as a "gap" hitter, which would play well at Safeco Field, where it is difficult for a right-handed hitter to hit many home runs.

"He has seen the park here," Bavasi said, "and when you talk to him, that's the way he sees himself -- as a gap-to-gap hitter."

The Mariners need more offensive production. They finished near the bottom in the American League for the second straight season in 2005, ranking last in batting average (.256), and next-to-last in runs (699) and home runs (130).

"One thing I have heard over and over is he is a good offensive catcher," Hargrove said. "He swings the bat and we can use every good bat we can get. I'm very excited about him joining the ballclub. I'm looking forward to it."

The Mariners went into the offseason with starting pitching and a left-handed power hitter at the top of their wish list. Catching was listed as the third priority.

But when Johjima became available on Nov. 8, expressed a strong desire to play for the Mariners and club officials realized they could sign him and not lose a draft choice for doing it, the deal became extremely attractive.


"I will do everything I can to adjust to the Major Leagues and I hope that I can help [the Mariners] get back into the playoffs."
-- Kenji Johjima

A right-handed batter, Johjima averaged .305 with 30 homers and 87 RBIs in 627 games over the past five years, and led the league in caught-stealing percentage four consecutive seasons.

"Kenji is an exciting acquisition for the Mariners, not only on the field as a superb catcher, but also in terms of what he will bring to the Seattle community," said Mariners chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln. "I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Kenji and his family when they visited Seattle and came away from that meeting highly impressed. He approaches this opportunity as a great challenge."

Playing under manager and legendary player Sadaharu Oh, Johjima was a member of three Pacific League championship teams (1999, 2000 and '03). The Hawks won the Japanese Series in 1999 and '03. A six-time postseason All-Star, Johjima was named to the Pacific League "Best Nine" from 1999-01 and again from 2003-05. He was a first-round selection by the Hawks in the 1994 draft.

Bavasi said Johjima would return to the U.S. in mid-January and participate in the organization's winter program.

It remains unclear whether he will play for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, scheduled for March 3-20.

"We've discussed it, and we will cross that bridge when we get there," Bavasi said.

With Johjima on board, Torrealba may soon be overboard. He had been projected as the team's Opening Day starting catcher, but this signing puts him on the trade market.

"We'll have to wait and see," Bavasi said. "There is a market for catching out there. We're more inclined to let Rivera back up here. Torrealba wants to be an everyday guy and has the ability to be an everyday guy. But with this signing, that is not possible."

And with the new catcher taking up about $5 million of the payroll, it could have an impact on the chances of landing a top-notch starter or left-handed hitter with power.

"If we move some money around, we can still get those things done," Bavasi said. "It won't be quite as easy, but we're still a better club with [Johjima] on board."

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.