Mariners' Kenji Johjima opts out of contract
Veteran catcher wants to finish his career in Japan.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Mariners were freed from one of their most burdensome contracts Monday when catcher Kenji Johjima opted to return to Japan to resume his career.
Yet the departure of Johjima after four seasons as the first Japanese catcher in major-league history leaves the Mariners scouring the market for ways to augment their catching.
"It does leave a void," said general manager Jack Zduriencik. "It's going to force us to look at other things. We have Rob [Johnson] going through a few surgeries, and an unproven talent in Adam Moore. The fact we've lost a veteran creates an area you have to look at, and we'll do that sooner rather than later."
Zduriencik said the Mariners are not paying a buyout to Johjima, who was to be paid $7.7 million in 2010 and $8.1 million in 2011. When Johjima signed his controversial three-year extension on April 25, 2008 — he was hitting .194 at the time — he and agent Alan Nero included an escape clause that allowed him to return to Japan after the 2009 season if exercised by Nov. 15.
The Mariners do not owe Johjima any of the nearly $16 million that was left on his contract, according to Nero.
"He walks completely on his contract here, and we start fresh," Nero said by phone.
There has been speculation in the Japanese press that Johjima, who had lost his job as the Mariners' regular catcher, will sign with the Hanshin Tigers. Nero, however, said that's not a certainty.
"They [Hanshin] need a catcher," he said. "It could well be where he ends up, but we don't have a clue at this point."
Nero said Johjima made the decision after returning home to Japan at the end of the season.
"He agonized over the decision, and made the decision on his own," Nero said. "We let him do this on his own. He basically notified the club. It wasn't like we all participated. It all came from Kenji and his heart."
At the end of the 2008 season, Nero confirmed to The Seattle Times that Johjima had an opt-out clause following the 2009 season, but said that it had specific language limiting the reasons why the catcher could leave.
"It has to do with something catastrophic happening to a member of his family, that would force him to return to Japan," Nero said at the time, declining to get any more specific. "Not him bailing because he's unhappy."
Asked about that statement, Nero said: "That might have been the thought process behind it, but he had a clause in his contract that basically said he could go home when he wanted to go home. We put it in to handle those kinds of things if he had a personal situation.
"It just got to the point that's what he wanted. He felt it was time to go home. He gave it a lot of thought, and considered the personal and professional side. He wanted to return [to Japan] while he was still on top of his game. We support him and respect him. There's no issue with the Mariners. He had a wonderful four years. He has tremendous respect for everyone there. This is not some sort of controversy."
The Mariners are left with two catchers on their 40-man roster. One is Johnson, who in his first full major-league season shared playing time with Johjima in 2009 but hit just .213 in 80 games. Last Friday, Johnson had the first of at least three, possibly four, offseason operations. The initial surgery was to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. He will have the same procedure on his right hip, as well as left wrist and possibly elbow surgery.
The other catcher is 25-year-old Moore. He is a career .301 hitter in four minor-league seasons, but has just six games of major-league experience as a September call-up in 2009. He hit .217 in 23 at-bats with two extra-base hits, including a homer.
In a telephone interview from Texas, Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu said he expected an open competition for the catching job.
"I think spring training will give us a much better look where we are at that point," he said. "It's too early to tell. I know Jack will look wherever he can to bolster our club. We have to add depth at the upper levels. This takes away some depth we have, and leaves us with two awfully young catchers."
Free-agent catchers include Ivan Rodriguez, Rod Barajas, Josh Bard, Sal Fasano, Jason Kendall, Jason LaRue, Bengie Molina, Jose Molina, Mike Redmond (a former Gonzaga player who resides in Spokane) and Brian Schneider. Those who could become free agents if their teams don't exercise options include Ramon Hernandez, Victor Martinez, Miguel Olivo, Yorvit Torrealba, Jason Varitek and Gregg Zaun.
In a conference call, Zduriencik said the ballclub would have welcomed back Johjima in 2010.
"Of course," he said. "Kenji being a veteran catcher and an integral part of this club, I was looking forward to seeing him here again."
In a statement issued by the Mariners, Johjima said, "After lots of very deep thought and deliberation, I have decided to return home to resume my career in Japan. I have had a wonderful experience competing at the major-league level. The last four years have been extraordinary, with great teammates and great coaches. I will always be indebted to the Mariners organization for give me this opportunity to follow my dream.
"This was a very difficult decision, both professionally and personally. I feel now is the time to go home, while I still can perform at a very high level. Playing close to family and friends was a major factor. I will miss the Seattle fans and their gracious support. Thank you all."
There is no news on Ken Griffey's status with the club.
"I had some talks with Ken at the end of the year," Zduriencik said. "I know Ken talked to a couple of our people, but I have not talked to Ken recently. No question we will have discussions with Ken, but at this moment in time, everyone is winding down from the end of the season. This will unfold as we move forward."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE - 8:27 PM
Catcher Gregg Zaun retires after 16 seasons
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.