Question of Ichiro demands an answer
Three weeks until pitchers and catchers report — oh, glory be — and the issue is still hanging out there, like one of Joel Pineiro's...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Three weeks until pitchers and catchers report — oh, glory be — and the issue is still hanging out there, like one of Joel Pineiro's sliders.
What in the world are the Mariners going to do about Ichiro? And, pray tell, when?
You remember Ichiro — skinny dude, treats his bat and glove like royalty, gets 200 hits a year, guaranteed, and runs down every fly ball in his territory (which, happily, is now center field).
Yeah, that guy. You know, the face of the Seattle franchise, their cornerstone player and marketing icon, who just happens to be entering the final year of his contract.
Would it not behoove the Mariners to get this weighty matter resolved, one way or the other? Should it not have been done long ago, so they could either anchor Ichiro to their team for years to come, or begin the complicated process of sending him elsewhere?
To keep Ichiro's status in limbo, to let this situation fester into spring training and beyond, is to risk adding yet another toxic distraction to a season that is going to begin with intense scrutiny of the job security of manager Mike Hargrove and general manager Bill Bavasi. The phrase "hot seat," as uttered last year by CEO Howard Lincoln, is already an essential element in the lexicon of every reporter in town.
The club got a hint of the sort of nonsense that awaits them a few weeks ago, when the "news" broke that Ichiro had told a Japanese reporter he was definitely out of Seattle after the season.
It turned out Ichiro never really said anything of the sort, but it pre-saged the feeding frenzy that will surely result in spring training if nothing is settled.
Every quote by Ichiro will be scrutinized for some sort of hidden window to his state of mind, because you just know that whatever point Ichiro wants to get across, he'll do so through nuance rather than outright demands. And that's easy to get lost in the translation.
Ichiro's agent, Tony Attanasio, is on record as saying Ichiro is waiting for the Mariners to initiate talks on a contract extension. There have been recent rumblings the Mariners have started the process of starting the process, and that they plan to go all out to keep Ichiro here for the long-term.
But at this stage, that will be easier said than done, and not just because of the huge financial commitment it will take to retain Ichiro.
The five-year, $50 million contract given this winter to Gary Matthews Jr., an inferior center fielder, started to set the negotiating parameters. That was followed by a seven-year, $126 million extension given last month by Toronto to Vernon Wells, another All-Star center fielder who was heading into his walk year.
We'll forego, for now, the debate over the relative worthiness of Ichiro vis-à-vis Wells, and leave it at this: Ichiro is a hugely valuable commodity, and if the Mariners decide not to pay him commensurately (or Ichiro decides not to accept their money), then some team out there — in San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or New York, or Chicago, all places where he would be a massive drawing card — will be clamoring to.
The reasonable assumption in these parts is that Japanese money-man Hiroshi Yamauchi will always be willing to pay what it takes to retain Ichiro, if he wants to be here.
But — and here's the $100 million question that needs to be settled, post-haste — does Ichiro want to be here, even if the money is right?
Beyond his undeniable fondness for living in Seattle, Ichiro's decision will very likely be swayed by his own state-of-the-team assessment — and that should be worrisome to the Mariners.
Bavasi's moves this winter have been based on unreasonable faith in too many players coming back from serious injury or career decline — and at too great a cost in young talent.
It's hard to imagine that after three excruciating last-place seasons, during which we have seen fleeting hints of Ichiro's discontent, that the additions of Jose Guillen, Miguel Batista, Jose Vidro, et al, have renewed his faith in the Mariners' grand plan.
The team will no doubt have to address that issue at the bargaining table, right along with the dollars.
It's high time to get moving. Because if Ichiro doesn't want to be here, that needs to be dealt with, too.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
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