The date has been circled on many Mariners fans calendars for what seems like years. The winter of 2012, Ichiro’s money is officially off the teams books. 17 million dollars is the number that the Mariners have committed to the Japanese outfielder for each of the past 5 years, and now it is time to make a decision. Do the Mariners bring back the Seattle icon, or is it time to cut ties completely?
In a recent conversation between Fox’s Jon Paul Morosi, Seattle General Manager Jack Zduriencik says he expects Ichiro to return next year. Before you let out your groans, and chalk this up to a “typical Mariner move” let’s take a look at some of Z’s specific quotes. He told Morosi things like, “He is a big part of this team,” “He is a franchise player,” and “We have phenomenal respect for him.” While those are all true and cannot be argued, fortunately, none of those suggest a decision has been made, nor do those quotes carry any certainty that Ichiro will return next year on what would be his 4th contract in Seattle.
Ichiro has brought a ton of excitement to the Mariners franchise for the better part of a decade, that is a fact, but over the past couple years, “polarizing” is a word that Mariners fans have become used to in conversations discussing the right fielder known simply by his first name. He has shown through entire seasons that he is one of the best hitters that the game has seen over recent history. Only Albert Pujols (.326) has a better batting average since they both joined the majors in 2001. (Ichiro .322) Unfortunately, Ichiro got a head start in Japan, and although he is only in the middle of year 12 in the bigs, he is nearing 40 years old. Decline in production hits all athletes differently, and with Ichiro’s training routines many thought he would be effective well into his 40′s, but as it turns out his body may remain in good health, his baseball contributions have taken a dramatic hit.
Ichiro was a legit all-star in 2010. He carried a slash of .315/.359/.394 which for a leadoff hitter was elite territory. His glove remained above average, and his arm one of the best in the game.
Then came 2011.
It was a tragic start as Ichiro’s homeland of Japan was devastated by a Tsunami, affecting both friends and family. It made sense that he was playing with a heavy heart, but as his Country began their rebuild, his numbers remained poor. Ichiro was not just posting down numbers compared to his own career, but poor numbers that were historically some of the worst baseball had ever seen from an everyday leadoff hitter. Typically, the ideal leadoff man will see pitches, and get on base. Ichiro was doing neither. His pitches per plate appearances were near the bottom of the barrel in all of baseball (3.51) While his OBP was low for any everyday player, let alone a leadoff hitter (.310) Ichiro apologists are quick to point to his 184 hits. Hit total is about as relevant of a stat as Wins for a starting pitcher. There are many more important aspects to these stats, and Ichiro’s 184 hits, which were among the best in baseball, meant nothing with such a low OBP. As a matter of fact, since 1901, only 6 other players have had at least 184 hits and an OBP of .310 or lower. None of them have had a lower slugging percentage to go along with those numbers than Ichiro had (.335) Which in most of the cases meant that at least the player brought some value in hitting for at least some power, Ichiro brought no value in any offensive aspect of the game.
2012 has gotten off to even a worse start for the slap hitter. His BB% is at the lowest mark of his career, as is his on base plus slugging (OPS) which sits at .636. His .286 OBP is laughable for any everyday player, and Seattle has the pleasure of seeing his name at the top third of their lineup everyday.
Jack Zduriencik is not dumb. There was no real “good” way to answer Morosi’s question, and if there is any front office that we should know plays their cards close to the vest, it is the current regime in Seattle. Do not read into these comments about Ichiro returning on a new contract. Ichiro has earned the right to finish this season out in the northwest. Although, I prefer him to be in the bottom third of the order, he is very likely to get the nod in RF for the remainder of the year. Come October, this organization needs to respectively cut ties, and do so with class. There is no need for this to turn ugly, we need to thank Ichiro for all that he has done. We need to not let his 2 year decline cloud our judgement of what his career meant to Seattle, but it is time for both sides to go in their own opposite directions. If Ichiro would like to look for a job elsewhere in the Majors, then by all means, do so. If he wishes to return to Japan to close out his career, best wishes. There are young kids waiting in the wings, and its time to pass the torch.
Thank you Ichiro, and good luck!