SEATTLE -- The Mariners were the first Major League organization to give a catcher from Japan an opportunity to play in the big leagues, and the first two years went so well, ownership decided to keep Kenji Johjima around for at least three more years. After almost two months of negotiations, the Mariners and Johjima reached agreement on a contract extension that will keep the 31-year-old receiver in a Seattle uniform through the 2011 season. Contract terms were not disclosed by the club, but the Associated Press reported that it is a three-year, $24 million deal. "I know it has been on his mind since Spring Training," manager John McLaren said. "It's behind him now and I hope he can relax and play some relaxed baseball."
Johjima looked and acted relaxed Friday afternoon during a press conference held at Safeco Field prior to the Mariners' series opener against the Athletics. He insisted that being in the final year of an original three-year, $16.5 million contract was not a major distraction, but also admitted that knowing he'll remain with the Mariners for several more seasons brings peace of mind for himself and his family. "This is where I started my career, here in the United States, and this is where I want to be," he said. "My family likes the city a lot. I want to thank the Mariners for giving me this contract and it will make me play better." McLaren said during Spring Training that Johjima was on the verge of becoming an All-Star. His work behind the plate this season has been superb, but his offense has been less productive. He went into Friday night's game with a .200 batting average, no home runs and five RBIs in 65 at-bats. Johjima was among the top catchers, both offensively and defensively, last season. Among American League catchers, he ranked third in hits (139), fourth in average (.287), doubles (29) and RBIs (61) and fifth in home runs (14). He also threw out 39.5 percent of attempted basestealers, second best in the AL. "Joh is a durable, intelligent catcher," McLaren said, "and he's still improving his game. It is a very tough adjustment to switch leagues from Japan, and he has done an outstanding job adapting his game to the U.S." A six-time postseason All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner with the Pacific League Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks, Johjima longed to follow in the footsteps of other Japan baseball stars such as Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Language was a major obstacle, but Johjima learned to speak both English and Spanish the past two years and it no longer is an issue. Besides learning his own pitching staff, Johjima had to learn the strengths and weaknesses of other AL pitchers during his rookie season in 2006. He passed with flying colors, setting an AL rookie record for hits by a catcher (147), while tying for first among first-year players with a .297 batting average. He also led all AL rookies in home runs (18), RBIs (76), multihit games (40), hits, total bases (228) and extra-base hits (44). Johjima hit a home run on Opening Day 2006, for his first Major League hit. "I think it's great for him and for us," said Jamie Burke, Johjima's backup. "He is one of the elite catchers in the league and the Mariners saw that. This was the last year of his contract and someone was going to get him if it wasn't us. This is a great move for Joh, his family and the organization." It also keeps the organization's catching depth status quo and solid. "As you all know, a little over two years ago we had no catching in this organization," general manager Bill Bavasi said. "We have gone from having none to probably having more catching than anybody else in the game and at a position like [catcher], we're very happy about that. "This is an exciting day for us, and everybody in the organization, to announce this extension of a guy that ranks in our league near the top in every offensive category at his position." Exactly what it means for Minor League prospects Jeff Clement, Rob Johnson, and further down the road, Adam Moore, is unclear. Clement, the Mariners' first-round Draft choice out of the University of Southern California in 2005, appears close to making the final jump from Triple-A Tacoma to the big leagues. "There is nothing in Kenji's game that would indicate there is a downturn in his game," Bavasi said. "These guys have jobs to do and Jeff's job is to chase him and [Kenji's] job is to keep Jeff in the Minor Leagues. That being said, we will let the players decide what's going to happen. "This position is a tough one to fill," Bavasi added. "With Kenji and Jamie here, Jeff chasing them and Adam Moore and Rob Johnson coming up, yeah we have peace of mind. This position is in real, real good shape, probably in better shape than any other club." It might work out that one of the catchers will have to change positions to be in the same lineup at the same time. Johjima isn't likely to change, saying he always has been a catcher and expects to always be a catcher. "If I were not catching in next few years, I probably would have to pay back half my salary," he quipped. Clement conceivably could reach the Majors quicker because of his productive bat, but there are no current plans to play him at another position in the field.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.