Mariners' all-time top 5 international signings

January 14th, 2021

SEATTLE -- When it comes to acquiring new talent, much attention is understandably focused annually on Major League Baseball’s June Draft. But there are other avenues to land promising young players and the Mariners have capitalized on the international market as much as any franchise in MLB over the years.

All-time Mariners greats Edgar Martinez, Ichiro Suzuki and Félix Hernández were all international free agents who wound up becoming stars in Seattle. More recently, promising outfielder Julio Rodriguez, a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic, has risen to the Mariners’ No. 2 ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline since signing for a $1.75 million bonus in 2017.

Shortstop Noelvi Marte, an 18-year-old from the Dominican Republic, is Seattle’s No. 7 prospect after signing for $1.55 million in 2018. Right-hander Juan Then (No. 14) and lefty Brayan Perez (No. 16) are two other recent Dominican signees who are rising up the prospect lists, along with outfielder Jonatan Clase.

These are the Mariners’ top five international prospects of all-time.

It’s hard to find a better bargain than Martinez, who went on to become a National Baseball Hall of Famer and revered figure in Mariners history after signing with the club for just a $4,000 bonus as a 19-year-old out of Puerto Rico.

Martinez was studying business administration at American University in Puerto Rico and working two factory jobs at night to make ends meet, while also playing semi-pro ball on weekends. His cousin, Carmelo Martinez, drew most of the scouts’ attention, but Edgar caught the Mariners’ eye during a tryout in 1982.

Despite misgivings about giving up his regular jobs for such a small signing bonus, he wound up taking Carmelo’s advice and giving the Mariners a shot. Though he was a late bloomer in pro ball, Martinez wound up becoming one of the premier right-handed hitters of his era, posting a remarkable .312/.418/.515 line and earning seven All-Star berths in an 18-year career with Seattle.

Unlike Latin American prospects who typically sign as young teenagers, Japanese players aren’t eligible to sign with MLB clubs until they become free agents after playing nine years in Nippon Professional Baseball. Ichiro was 27 in 2000 when his Orix Blue Wave club allowed him to begin pursuing his Major League dream, knowing they’d likely lose him without any compensation in another year.

At that time, a posting system was in place that had MLB teams submit blind bids for the right to negotiate with a pending Japanese free agent. The Mariners won that bidding process, paying Orix $13 million, then signed the slender right fielder to a three-year, $14 million contract.

It didn’t take long for that deal to pay off handsomely as Ichiro won the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year Awards for Seattle’s 116-win team in 2001 and went on to earn 10 consecutive All-Star appearances and Gold Glove Award honors on the way to an outstanding 19-year MLB career.

The man who would become King in Seattle first caught the Mariners’ attention as a 14-year-old in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where he was spotted by part-time scout Luis Fuenmayor throwing mid-90s fastballs.

The Mariners weren’t the only MLB team to notice the young phenom, but Fuenmayor alerted fellow scouts Pedro Avila and Emilio Carrasquel and Mariners international scouting director Bob Engle. Thus Seattle established a strong early relationship with Hernández and his father, Félix Sr., that led to the family choosing the Mariners’ offer of a $710,000 signing bonus when he reached his 16th birthday.

While it’s difficult to project 16-year-old pitchers, Hernández more than lived up to expectations. The talented right-hander reached the Majors by age 19 and went on to become the most-successful starter in franchise history as a six-time All-Star, two-time AL ERA leader, 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner and the last pitcher in MLB to throw a perfect game in '12.

Another example of how it’s not always the highest-priced signees who turn into stars, Vizquel agreed to a $2,000 bonus with the Mariners in 1984 as a 16-year-old infielder out of Caracas, Venezuela.

Vizquel made his MLB debut in 1989 and played his first five seasons for Seattle -- winning his first AL Gold Glove Award in '93 -- before he was traded to the Indians. The slick-fielding shortstop wound up playing 24 seasons in the Majors, winning 10 more Gold Glove Awards, racking up 2,877 hits and playing more games (2,968) than any foreign-born player in MLB history. He retired at age 45.

The Mariners have been one of MLB’s most-active teams in the Japanese market, with at least one Japanese player on their Major League roster every year since 1998. While Ichiro clearly tops that list, Iwakuma proved to be a highly successful starting pitcher after agreeing to a $1.5 million base contract in 2012, with an additional $3.4 million in potential incentives.

The right-hander could have come to MLB a year earlier as his Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, granted permission for him to go through the posting system and the A’s wound up with the high bid of a reported $13 million. But when the A’s couldn’t come to a contract agreement with Iwakuma, he wound up staying with Rakuten for another year and then signed with Seattle in 2012 as a complete free agent.

That turned out to be a fortuitous move for the Mariners as Iwakuma went 63-39 with a 3.42 ERA in 150 games (136 starts) in six seasons in Seattle. He was an AL All-Star in 2013 while going 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 33 starts and threw the fifth no-hitter in franchise history in '15 against the Orioles.

Iwakuma’s impact proved to be lasting, as the club brought him back in January 2021 as a special assignment coach. In the role, Iwakuma works with pitchers and pitching instructors across all Minor League affiliates and the big league team, and he helps with scouting in his homeland of Japan.