Rays win rights to ink Japanese slugger

Rays win rights to negotiate with Japanese star

ST. PETERSBURG -- It's always good to have options. And after winning the rights to negotiate with Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura on Wednesday, the Devil Rays have added just that.

Iwamura is a left-handed power hitter for the Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League. He was made available for bidding on Monday, and the Rays bid an undisclosed amount to beat out such rumored teams as the Red Sox, Indians and Phillies for the 27-year-old.

"We knew certain teams had interest, but we didn't know the extent," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations. "We were hopeful [to win the rights], but not necessarily expecting it. We're obviously very happy about it. This is the first step toward agreeing to terms on a deal, and I think he's going to be a Devil Ray for many years."

Friedman said that Tampa Bay first became interested in the slugger during last season's World Baseball Classic. As Iwamura's season progressed overseas, it became more and more apparent that he might make a nice home for himself with the Rays.

"One of things we were most attracted to is his positional flexibility," Friedman said. "We like his bat, and the fact that he's left-handed helps a lot ... [and] we think this is a guy who can play third base, second, the outfield and first."

It's a flexibility, Friedman continued, that would allow more elbow room to make subsequent moves.

A void at third base was left on July 12 by the departure of longtime Ray Aubrey Huff, who was traded to Houston in exchange for right-hander Mitch Talbot, shortstop Ben Zobrist and cash considerations. Still, it's unclear just how Iwamura will fit into the Rays' mix, as top prospect B.J. Upton shined at times at the hot corner last season in Huff's absence, despite committing 13 errors in just 50 games.

There's also a possibility of Iwamura moving to second base, shifting the incumbent, Jorge Cantu, to first.

"We still expect big things out of both B.J. and Jorge," Friedman said. "[Iwamura's] flexibility allows us to do a lot of things, [and be] immensely flexible heading into December. But it's way too early to tie [the acquisition] into one player, specifically."

Iwamura also has experience in center field, although it's not likely he'll see any time there due to the resurgence of Rocco Baldelli, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft. Iwamura may also make his niche as a utility player, combining several options and allowing the team even more opportunity to shuffle its lineup in order to hone its situational plan of attack. It's a versatility, Friedman said, that fits well with the mind-set of manager Joe Maddon.

"That's obviously something we look forward to discussing in person with him," Friedman said. "It's really important to us, and something we think he's more than capable of doing. But until I talk to him personally, it's hard to say."

Iwamura's .300-plus batting average with the Swallows over the last three seasons complemented well his 106 home runs. He owned a .311 average last season, and added 32 homers, 77 RBIs, 84 runs scored and a .389 on-base percentage. He's no defensive slouch, either, having earned five Gold Gloves.

The Rays have 30 days to sign Iwamura, and Friedman was already beginning to put the wheels in motion as early as Wednesday evening. He acknowledged that the organization would be keeping its eyes on the Japanese market, hinting that this might not be the last overseas deal Rays fans would see.

"We will continue to try to improve the ball club," he said. "And we'll explore everything that's presented to us."

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.