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Originally published July 21, 2012 at 6:05 PM | Page modified July 21, 2012 at 9:33 PM

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Ichiro's legacy muddies what should be a clear-cut contract decision

The Mariners must choose between improving their team and honoring a declining superstar.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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It would seem to any reasonable outside observer that the Mariners have a gift heading their way. An $18 million gift.

At the end of the season, a player with undeniably declining skills, taking up a disproportionate amount of the payroll and blocking a position that best fits one of their rising young players, reaches the end of his contract.

The solution seems simple: The Mariners honor Ichiro for his tremendous legacy, but make the prudent decision that the time has come to move on without him. They plug Casper Wells into right field, use the $18 million in salary relief to plug several other holes, and live happily ever after.

But since the player in question is Ichiro, the answer, of course, is not so simple. There are increasing rumblings that the Mariners intend to bring back Ichiro in 2013 for his 13th season with the ballclub, perhaps even on a multi-year deal. According to Fox Sports, Jack Zduriencik said last week that he expected Ichiro to return next year, though when I contacted him he backed off and said it's not something he would ever discuss publicly.

Then Jay Buhner, in characteristically colorful language, intensified the debate by telling Brock and Salk on 710 ESPN that he would "vomit" if Ichiro were given a three-year extension for between $35 and $40 million.

"I mean, really, no offense," Buhner continued. "No offense, we've got to get this organization turned around. You can't be spending all the money on one guy."

I wouldn't put it in quite those terms, but Buhner is right: If the Mariners want to progress in their rebuilding plan, they need to do it without a 38-year-old right-fielder (he turns 39 in October) who is a shadow of the player that entranced us for a decade. And certainly not at a substantial salary.

I wrote at the outset of the season that I expected a strong bounce-back year from Ichiro, which might have changed this debate. I was wrong, at least so far. Moving to third in the order was not the answer, nor was moving back to leadoff. So far, with a .290 on-base percentage that's trending in the wrong direction (.236 in July), he has been a detriment in a lineup that has too many of those.

But at least the struggling youngsters provide hope of a brighter future once they adjust to the major leagues. It's hard to see Ichiro making dynamic gains as he creeps toward 40; the speed aspect of his game, so essential to making Ichiro the player he was, is no longer a weapon, and he simply doesn't drive the ball hard enough, or often enough, to compensate.

Taking this stance does not constitute Ichiro-bashing, though there is plenty of that going on — more every day, unfortunately. This is not about him being a selfish player, or any of the other misconceptions that abound regarding Ichiro.

It is, indeed, possible to respect his contributions and still come to the conclusion that it is time to cut ties and move on.

Few situations in sports are messier and more fraught with angst than a superstar in decline. Trying to navigate the fine line between wanting to honor his legacy, and still do what's best for the organization, can be harrowing.

We saw that first-hand with Ken Griffey Jr., who could have made it work had he walked away after the 2009 season, when teammates carried him and Ichiro triumphantly off the field after the last game. But Griffey came back for one more year, and to say it got ugly is an understatement.

Throw in all the special circumstances that surround Ichiro, and you have a real dilemma on the Mariners' hands. I can see them wanting Ichiro to get 3,000 hits in a Seattle uniform, but at his current rate he will finish the season with 2,605 — 395 shy of the magic number.

When he was rolling out 200-hit seasons like clockwork, Ichiro could have gotten that done in less than two seasons, no problem; but unless there's a resurgence of his skills, it would take him into the 2015 season — when he would be 41 — to reach 3,000. No milestone is worth that kind of commitment.

Of course, there's also the element of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the retired Nintendo chairman in Japan, who many believe may ultimately dictate Ichiro's return. That's his right, of course, as the de facto owner of the Mariners (Yamauchi sold his shares to Nintendo of America in 2004 as part of some estate-planning, but still acts in the role of principal owner). But it's also the right of the Mariners' fans to not be happy about it.

Because if it's strictly a baseball decision, the answer is clear-cut.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry.


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