Johjima, Mariners agree: 3 years, $16.5M

Updated: November 22, 2005, 9:07 AM ET news services

SEATTLE -- Now that Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima and the Seattle Mariners agreed to a $16.5 million, three-year contract Monday, they have one thing left to figure out: how to communicate.

Kenji Johjima
AP/Kyodo NewsKenji Johjima hits a two-run homer at the 2004 Olympics. He has signed with the Mariners.

"Yeah, there is a certain challenge coming over as a catcher because of the language issue," Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said.

Johjima will be the first Japanese catcher to play in the major leagues. He and his wife have started work with an English tutor back home, and Bavasi added that Johjima "made a point of talking in English" at a dinner during his Nov. 11-14 visit to Seattle with his family.

"That leads me to believe he is going to be fine," Bavasi said.

Johjima's deal allows him to earn an additional $2.5 million in performance bonuses.

"They were the first team to come to me and they have pursued me with great sincerity, which meant a lot to me," Johjima said during a news conference in Fukuoka, Japan. "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 team get back into the playoffs."

An All-Star for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Johjima became a free agent on Nov. 8 after hitting .309 with 24 homers and 57 RBI in 116 games during a season cut short by a broken left leg in late September. He has won seven straight Gold Gloves.

He will remain in Japan until the Mariners' winter camp begins in mid-January in Peoria, Ariz. Johjima can speak with reporters through a translator, but there are plenty of game issues such as going over scouting reports twice each day and visiting the mound to talk to pitchers.

So, manager Mike Hargrove, how is your Japanese?

"Ummm ... good," Hargrove said, chuckling. "I've got a sister-in-law who is Japanese. I've got to talk to her a lot more."

Hargrove, who spends most of his offseason at his home in suburban Cleveland, has not met Johjima. He hasn't even seen game tape of his new catcher.

Yet Hargrove, like his boss, said he anticipates few communication problems.

"Kenji is a good baseball player, number one," Hargrove said. "And it's been my experience good baseball players know how to get hitters out."

In Seattle, Johjima will join All-Star right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners' most famous Japanese player. He criticized the team this month in a Japanese newspaper for lacking leadership and direction. Bavasi said he did not consult with Suzuki before signing Johjima.

Bavasi called Johjima a "gap hitter" well-suited for Safeco Field's spacious outfield -- not the power hitter some in Japan believe. His leg is not fully healed yet, but Bavasi said it will be by January and the injury is a "non-issue."

What could be an issue is Johjima playing for Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic to be played during spring training.

"We've discussed it. And we will cross that bridge when we come to it," Bavasi said.

As for the two other catchers on Seattle's roster, Bavasi said he would look to trade 27-year-old Yorvit Torrealba because he is at the point in his career when he deserves to start or play regularly. Bavasi said Rene Rivera, who has played in only 18 major league games, will get the opportunity to prove himself as Johjima's backup.

Johjima was considered one of the top free agent catchers on the market this winter along with Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.