Rebuilding the Mariners
Part 2: Winter moves may hit M's hard at plate
The fate of Raul Ibanez, and veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre, will dictate just how dramatic the reshaping of the Mariners will be.
Seattle Times staff reporter
There is one distraction Raul Ibanez has been unable to block out as he puts together one of his finest seasons.
Ibanez compares himself to "a racehorse with blinders on" because of the way he can focus on nothing more than the task ahead. It's part of the mental training techniques he picked up from renowned sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, and explains Ibanez's continued production while everything around him is falling apart.
Yet as successful as Ibanez has been at shutting out questions about his pending free agency, the position he'll play in 2009 and the firings of his team's manager and general manager, he has been unable to completely zone out when it comes to the Mariners' losing ways. The embarrassing nights endured by the team have taken their toll on its top offensive star, to the point where it could become the No. 1 issue for Ibanez when he decides where to sign what will likely be his final big contract.
"It's been miserable," Ibanez said. "It's been embarrassing. It's been difficult. It's been emotional. It's been dull. There have been some exciting moments, but on the whole, it's been very difficult."
The fate of Ibanez, and veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre, will dictate just how dramatic the reshaping of the Mariners will be. While the Mariners would like to bring back Ibanez under certain financial conditions, it's the player who will ultimately make the final call.
And Ibanez says the ability to play for a winning team will be a priority.
"It's very important," he said. "Who doesn't want to win? That's what you put all the hard work in for. That's what you train for. Winning is what every player who puts on a uniform wants to do. If you don't want it, you shouldn't be playing this game."
Ibanez plans to put a phone call in to the Mariners early in the offseason to gauge where the franchise is headed.
"You're not always as far away as you think," he said. "But sometimes, you're also a lot further away than you thought."
With the team looking hard-pressed to contend in 2009, the pressure for Ibanez to sign elsewhere will grow. Should he leave, the Mariners will be looking not only at a gaping hole on offense, but in the clubhouse.
No other Mariners hitter has had an on-base-plus-slugging percentage higher than Ibanez in any of the past three seasons. And while there have been some criticisms of Ibanez's defense in left field, a position where he prefers to remain, few in the game have put up his offensive numbers while manning a corner outfield spot every day. Ibanez is also seen as an excellent candidate to replace departed Richie Sexson at first base, or Jose Vidro as designated hitter.
Without Ibanez, the team will need a slugger, preferably left-handed, to fill the first base or DH power void. There have been suggestions that catcher Jeff Clement, bothered by sore knees, would be a prime candidate.
But much of that will depend on other factors, like whether catcher Kenji Johjima can pick his game up off the scrap heap. If Johjima sticks behind the plate, the club could go with a Johjima-Rob Johnson tandem at catcher and move Clement to another position.
Along with Beltre, Ibanez also spent much of this season quietly filling a clubhouse leadership void as one veteran after another was shipped off. While not as outwardly vocal as some would like, Ibanez and Beltre are the everyday players who did the most talking to younger Mariners about how to play the game right and go about their business off the field.
And it was a clubhouse in need of some direction, given the problems engulfing it as the season came undone. When it came to Ichiro, who got off to a typically slow start in April and part of May, the internal turmoil nearly hit its boiling point.
"I just can't believe the number of guys who really dislike him," said one clubhouse insider. "It got to a point early on when I thought they were going to get together and go after him."
The coaching staff and then-manager John McLaren intervened when one player was overheard talking — in reference to Ichiro — about wanting to "knock him out." A team meeting was called to clear the air.
It was a repeat of May 2007, when Mike Hargrove was in charge and a team meeting had to be called during a series at Tampa Bay because of clubhouse bickering over Ichiro being a "selfish" player.
Ichiro this year had to battle a midseason hamstring problem, and he was shifted from center field back to right because McLaren thought Ichiro was a better defender in the corner. While Ichiro is said to have recovered from his injury, his stolen-base totals dropped as the season progressed. He also did not get to some balls in the gap and the right-field corner at times, prompting more clubhouse complaints that he cared only about piling up hits instead of sitting out to heal properly.
But others point out that Ichiro, along with Ibanez, is one of the few Mariners to put up consistently high numbers during a season in which the team has all but collapsed. They also suggest that Ichiro, being Japanese and not a vocal clubhouse presence, is somewhat vulnerable to scapegoating in a clubhouse that at times appeared divided along linguistic and cultural lines.
"He goes about his business, works hard, sets goals for himself and achieves them every year," the team insider said. "How is that selfish? With him, it isn't about the 200 hits. It's about playing the game the right way and playing it hard every time out."
No one can dispute the value of a leadoff man who has reached the 200-hit plateau eight consecutive times and scored at least 100 runs each time. Especially in relation to the overall poor performances around him.
Part of the puzzle any new GM will face is where to play Ichiro, who puts up singles-hitting statistics more common to a center fielder while playing a power slot in right. It is usually cheaper for teams to find power-hitting right fielders than sluggers who play center field.
But with team president Chuck Armstrong already ruling out high-priced free-agent acquisitions this winter — making it next to impossible for a power-hitting center fielder to be signed — the Mariners face a serious outfield power shortage if Ibanez leaves, holes are filled from within the organization and Ichiro stays in right.
As with Ibanez, third baseman Beltre isn't really sure where he'll fit into a wholesale rebuilding process. Or how excited he'd be as part of one.
"It depends," he said the day he announced he would undergo season-ending thumb surgery. "I want to win. That's the bottom line. If this team is going to go young and really try to rebuild it, I don't want to really be in the situation where I know we're going to lose coming to spring training. I hope that's not the case, because if it is, it's not going to be fun."
Beltre has one year remaining on his Seattle contract, at a rather hefty $12 million. A trade of Beltre, either this winter or midway through 2009, is likely to net the team some top prospects in addition to freeing up cash.
But Beltre provides the team's surest infield glove and is the next biggest power threat after Ibanez. This year's Mariners have the second-worst slugging percentage in the American League and appear primed for an even bigger fall next season if Ibanez, Beltre or both wind up leaving.
Up the middle, the Mariners face questions about the futures of shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and second baseman Jose Lopez. There has been thought of moving Lopez, who put up career-best numbers on offense, to a corner infield spot to mitigate his lack of defensive range. But it's unknown whether he could hit for the power required of a third or first baseman.
As for Betancourt, he took huge steps backward at the plate and in the field. But there are few infield replacements at second, third, first or shortstop who appear ready for the majors. Third baseman Matt Tuiasosopo barely got his feet wet in September, with utility man Miguel Cairo handling just as much work at the infield corners.
Tug Hulett is viewed as a backup infielder at best.
In the minors, top prospect Carlos Triunfel is still a year or two away, though it's not known whether he'll stay at shortstop or move to third base. The Mariners have high hopes for Dennis Raben, their 2008 second-round pick out of the University of Miami who could be converted from right field to first base. But he played at short-season Class A Everett this year.
Unless somebody were to step up in a huge way at Class AAA next season, it appears the only hopes of replacing the current middle infield would come via trade. More than likely, the new GM would give the Betancourt-Lopez middle infield combination another shot.
"We're a team that gets its share of hits," Mariners interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "But we just can't seem to pick up those RBI. We're getting runners in scoring position, but we're not driving them home. Maybe it's because we have a runner at second base and then hit a single and the runner stops at third. That's where power comes in handy for you, and you want those balls hit to the gap."
Any way it's sliced, the 2008 season was a dreadful one power-wise outside of Ibanez, Beltre and, at times, Lopez. And with Ibanez, Beltre, or both possibly on their way out, it will be a challenge for this team to avoid crashing through the floor.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 8:27 PM
Catcher Gregg Zaun retires after 16 seasons
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