Last Updated on March 5, 2018 by Luke Arkins
Earlier today the Seattle Mariners announced starting left fielder Ben Gamel is expected to miss four to six weeks with an oblique strain. The loss of Gamel places even more stress on an outfield squad already without Mitch Haniger (hand tendinitis) and Guillermo Heredia (recovering from shoulder surgery).
So how did the Mariners react to their mounting outfield injuries? According to multiple media reports, the club is signing Ichiro Suzuki.
If the Mariners actually ink their former star outfielder to a deal, it will only reinforce what many fans have been thinking all offseason. The team isn’t serious about contending this year.
I know that’s harsh, but how can an organization whose CEO insists he’s committed to winning reconcile signing a 44-year-old outfielder with diminished skills?
Last season, the Miami Marlins used Ichiro in the outfield sparingly; just 23 starts and 33 games total. In fact, 51-percent of his plate appearances came as a pinch hitter. Most often, he hit for a pitcher — not a position player.
Ichiro’s limited usage by Marlins manager Don Mattingly made sense based on the numbers. During 215 plate appearances, the left-handed hitter slashed .255/.318/.332 with just nine of his 50 hits being of the extra base variety.
That’s a far cry from the player who routinely led baseball in total hits during his best years with the Mariners.
Sadly, Father Time has robbed Ichiro of the blazing speed he used to disrupt games for nearly a decade. Baseball Savant lists his 2017 sprint speed at 26.5 feet/second. To put that into perspective, that’s the same as what Kyle Seager registered last year.
Does that mean I’d bet money on Seager sticking with Ichiro in a foot race? No, but it’s clear the 17-year veteran can no longer rely on his quickness to be a difference-maker on the base paths or in the outfield.
When it comes to playing time, how often Ichiro would be available for full-time duty is debatable based on how he was utilized last year.
While Ichiro’s training regimen and durability are legendary, Mattingly used the 10-time Gold Glove winner to play complete games on consecutive days just three times last year. The only instance when Ichiro played a full game on three straight days didn’t occur until mid-September.
In fairness, the 2017 Marlins had arguably the best outfield in baseball. Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna each started at least 149 games. It would’ve been a tough lineup for anyone to get appreciable playing time with that crew readily available.
On the other hand, all three players are no longer Marlins and the club didn’t retain Ichiro’s services. Perhaps, the spendthrift organization kept Ichiro around simply because they were on the hook to pay him — even if they released him.
It’s tough to project Ichiro’s current defensive value using advanced metrics. Since 2016, he’s played a combined 800.1 innings at all three outfield positions with five defensive runs saved (DRS). Such a small sample size means the data is inconclusive.
Could Ichiro be passable in the outfield? Sure. Even at his advanced age, he’s still very athletic and has 20-plus years of professional experience to rely upon. But is “passable” defense what a contender should be seeking from a fourth outfielder with limited offensive upside?
That brings up an interesting point — at least for me. How would Ichiro fit into the Mariners’ plans once the Gamel, Haniger, and Heredia are finally available?
Ichiro doesn’t play anywhere but the outfield and he’s not a defensive upgrade over any of Seattle’s current outfielders with the exception of full-time designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
As far as pinch-hitting duty goes, Ichiro will have fewer opportunities in a league that doesn’t allow pitchers to hit on a daily basis. Perhaps, he’s a better option than utility player candidates Taylor Motter or Andrew Romine. But does that justify a roster spot on a club likely to periodically carry eight relievers?
Assuming the Mariners don’t part ways with Ichiro once they have their starting outfield rotation healthy, the potential exists he’ll impede the development of either Gamel or Heredia. One of the two likely ends up playing with Class-AAA Tacoma to make room for the icon. It’s tough to see how that makes Seattle more competitive.
For these reasons — regressing skills; negligible value; questionable availability; decreased roster flexibility — adding Ichiro signals to me the Mariners aren’t serious about winning this year. Either that or the club is unwilling or unable to commit the necessary financial resources to add a better player.
There aren’t many outfield options remaining in free agency, but there are better ones than Ichiro. Specifically; Jon Jay, Melky Cabrera, and another former Mariner — Seth Smith. None is particularly palatable to me. But I’d lean towards Jay, if forced to choose one.
Jay can play all outfield positions, including center field in a pinch. Moreover, the 32-year-old put up a respectable numbers — .296/.374/.375 in 433 plate appearances — with the Chicago Cubs last year.
Bringing back Ichiro seemingly comes out of nowhere for an organization allegedly focused on getting younger and becoming more athletic — especially in the outfield. What it does prove is something I’ve suggested in the past.
The Mariners are in the midst of a slow-burn rebuild. They’ll continue to field a decent team, but they won’t overextend themselves financially to improve the ball club.
Some may suggest the Mariners and Ichiro have a secret handshake agreement that he’ll retire once the outfield is back at full strength. While that might sound cool to the casual fan, such a move would only further reinforce my contention that they’re not committed to winning in 2018.
Yes, I know. The financial cost of letting Ichiro go during the season would be relatively small. But the notion the Mariners would simply release the iconic player isn’t realistic. He’s a fan favorite with ties to the club’s record-setting 2001 season, which happens to be the last time Seattle made the postseason.
For those who doubt Ichiro’s popularity, look at the Twitter poll posted by Mike Salk of 710 ESPN. Although unscientific, the data suggest there’s an appetite for an Ichiro reunion in the Emerald City. You’ll have to cast a vote to see the most current results of Salk’s survey.
Ichiro’s popularity notwithstanding, it’s difficult to make a convincing argument he would make Seattle better in any measurable way. Sure, he wouldn’t necessarily make the club significantly worse, but that’s not the point.
With less then a month to go before Opening Day, the Mariners should be adding players more capable of making the club better.
That’s what a serious contender would do.