ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays appear close to signing Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura.
Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, and Alan Nero, Iwamura's agent, have said that the gap between both parties has been narrowed and they expect a deal to be struck before Friday's midnight deadline.
In November, 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, which will be paid to Iwamura's former team, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, if a deal is reached. The figure topped bids by the Indians and Padres.
Under the prevailing system, the Rays have until Friday to sign Iwamura. If they do not sign him, they will owe no money to the Swallows, to whom Iwamura would return for the upcoming season.
A five-time All-Star and a six-time Gold Glove winner in Japan, Iwamura, 27, is a career .300 hitter during eight seasons. In 2006 he hit .311 with 32 homers and 77 RBIs for the Swallows.
Iwamura hit .389 for Japan in the World Baseball Classic in the spring and played superb defense. The Rays observed Iwamura for the first time at the Classic and his performance prompted their bid for his services.
Third base is Iwamura's best position, and he is known to have a slick glove and a strong arm. But he also gives the Rays some flexibility in the field: He can play second, in the outfield and first base while providing the lineup with a left-handed bat. Given B.J. Upton's struggles on defense at the hot corner, Iwamura will likely play third for the Rays.
Iwamura is the second player the Rays' new ownership has procured through the Japanese posting system. Reliever Shinji Mori was signed prior to the 2006 season, before suffering a torn labrum during Spring Training to end his season.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.