What should Mariners do with declining Ichiro?
Mariners manager Eric Wedge must be allowed to make decisions based on what's best for the team's future, not what's best for Ichiro.
Seattle Times staff columnist
There once was a time in Mariners history when any manager who dared sit Ichiro for a game, or for that matter an inning, was courting a death wish.
In the topsy-turvy world of M's baseball, Ichiro was the one guarantee. If the sun came up he was there, always in right field, always at the top of the order. He got four or five at-bats every day. These practically were laws of nature.
But that was hundreds of at-bats ago. That was before the decline that has been more rapid than most of us believed possible.
Now, as if he doesn't have enough problems nursing this young team around all the inevitable pot holes in a 162-game season, manager Eric Wedge has the unenviable job of dealing with Ichiro in decline.
For the second time this season, Wedge gave Ichiro a day of rest Monday. That really is monumental news. Since 2004, the only season Ichiro missed more than one game was 2009, when he started the season on the disabled list with severe fatigue.
This entire first half of the season, Wedge has been trying to find a role for Ichiro. Could he be a No. 3 hitter? Should he return to his customary leadoff spot?
In his first 10 seasons in Seattle, Ichiro put up Hall of Fame numbers. He set records that might not be broken for decades. His name forever will be linked with other hit machines like Pete Rose and Ty Cobb.
But at 38 he is on the slippery slope that every great athlete finds late in a career. And his value on this team that is looking past 2012 is minimal.
Ichiro always has been a volume player. He always has been about his numbers — number of hits, number of plate appearances, number of games. Volume, volume, volume.
But now the 30 to 40 infield hits he got every season for 10 years are gone. He came into Tuesday's game at Arizona hitting .255. Before his four-hit game Tuesday night, his on-base percentage since returning as the leadoff hitter on June 1 was .206, same as his batting average in that stretch.
In Seattle, it's not good to be hitting your area code. More alarming, Ichiro hasn't drawn a walk this month.
He won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves, but now Ichiro is not even the best right fielder on the team. Casper Wells is.
The outfield that started Monday — Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez and Wells — covers as much ground as any in baseball. It's as good as the Angels'.
Wells, 27, who has hit well since his recall from Tacoma, needs to play. This shouldn't be up for discussion. The left-handed-heavy Mariners order needs another right-handed bat. And the power-deficient Mariners attack needs the kind of pop Wells might be able to supply.
Give Wells all of July. See if he can produce.
The problem for Wedge is what to do with Ichiro. There is no way Ichiro will accept a radically diminished job description. He isn't a role player.
His contract expires at the end of the season and, in a perfect world, Ichiro would be trade bait at this point in the season. Wouldn't some pennant contender take a chance on adding a future Hall of Famer at the trade deadline?
Wouldn't some team bet that the once-magical bat of Ichiro's could reawaken for a stretch run? Wouldn't he be willing to bend his game for the chance to play in a World Series? At his age, with his résumé, wouldn't he accept a supporting role on a winner?
Ichiro should be easy to trade, but he isn't. There are no secrets about him. Scouts know he's not a team guy. Scouts know he doesn't look at enough pitches during an at-bat. They know he is most concerned with volume.
These are probably the last months Seattle will get to watch Ichiro. There is no way he should be re-signed. He's not one of the wily veterans every rebuilding team needs in the lineup.
Will Wedge be allowed to sit him? Will general manager Jack Zduriencik be daring enough to work a trade with some team willing to gamble?
Ichiro in Dodgers blue, instead of Mariners teal?
Or will Ichiro play out the season, hitting leadoff in Seattle, taking games and at-bats away from Wells and Saunders?
Through some very rocky times, Wedge has kept this team together and, in these final 3 ½ months of the season, he should be allowed to make decisions based on what he thinks is best for the future.
Not what the organization thinks is best for Ichiro.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|Ichiro's decline the past four seasons:|
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
email@example.com | 206-464-2176