BY Art Thiel 04:13AM 03/25/2012

Thiel: Mariners seek value for 'historical' player

Ichiro’s best days are behind him, but that happens with a lot of star players who still carry on. The Mariners must decide whether they have the team to help carry him to a contract extension.

From his first at-bat to his every move, Ichiro was bathed in flashes by the Japanese faithful Sunday afternoon at the Tokyo Dome. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

TOKYO — To see Ichiro adored in his homeland is a remarkable thing. Which only complicates matters.

Sitting behind the dugout at the Tokyo Dome Sunday were the Mariners’ top executives — Howard Lincoln, Chuck Armstrong, Chris Larson, John Ellis, Jack Zduriencik and others who will be party sometime in the next six months to the decision to re-hire Ichiro or let him go.

Numerous premier players in Seattle’s sports history have been at similar crossroads. Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Dave Krieg, Matt Hasselbeck and Steve Hutchinson are among those who moved on, by choice or by club decision. Edgar Martinez, Steve Largent, Walter Jones, Fred Brown and Nate McMillan, among others, chose to stay on.

None have had the layers of the Ichiro decision.

Ichiro has a personal relationship with the primary owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, who knows little of baseball but much about Japanese national pride.

Ichiro is the face of the franchise, the only player in Seattle and among the few in MLB whose presence alone generates revenue.

He represents a nation that MLB thinks is important enough, despite the cost and hassle, to share regular-season games every four years.

He has reached that place where his best years are behind him, and his future contributions will be lessened. Yet he is within reach of career milestones that he savors and MLB values.

He likes it in Seattle.

But there are some unsentimental baseball fans who see a declining skill set and a financial cost that will keep resources and playing time away from players who will bring more baseball success.

Zduriencik, the guy who has to put the baseball decision before ownership, puts it this way.

“All of us will acknowledge he’s been a historical player,” he said before the exhibition game Sunday against the Hanshin Tigers “We keep that in mind when we sit down to talk to him. He’s earned that right.”

So . . . what price history?

Modern pro sports have had numerous star players whose dwindling careers are compensated much more at the end than they were at the beginning.  In the abstract, there is a balance: The team gets the better of things early, the player late — if they agree to stay together.

If Ichiro wanted to play for more successful franchises, he had his chances. Now, based on last year’s declining production, it appears too late, especially at current compensation of $18 million. As as a player who puts the value of control at the top of his priorities, the prospect of going to another team where he will not be held in the same regard seems unattractive.

Who else would indulge him a translator when his English is better than many of his teammates?

The problem with retaining a “historical” player beyond his premium years is that a team needs to be set up to accommodate.

That typically means a veteran team that’s already had some success. That’s why Peyton Manning’s decision to choose the Denver Broncos is so high risk for both sides. Besides Manning’s health issues, the Broncos aren’t a team loaded with playoff-savvy vets, and the championship deed has to be done now.

The Yankees for years have been able to carry players such as Don Mattingly and Bernie Williams because they had so much veteran talent. The Celtics are doing the same with Kevin Garnett, the Spurs with Tim Duncan.

But the Mariners, as we will hear endlessly this year, are a young team following a plan.

The plan for the past off-season, according to Zduriencik, included filling four jobs:

“We wanted to acquire a veteran starting pitcher (Kevin Millwood), a  left-handed reliever (converted starter Charlie Furbush), a big bat in the middle of the lineup that would be with us as we grew (Jesus Montero) and another infielder (Munenori Kawasaki). We accomplished all those things.”

Perhaps, but none are close to a lock regarding 2012 performance. And most of the rest of the roster is a collection of unprovens. That’s not the kind of supporting cast prepared to carry a big-name player into the twilight.

The desperate hope is a return to form by Ichiro. For whatever it’s worth, his spring numbers have been good, as was his attitude about surrendering the leadoff spot to Chone Figgins, a move more about money than winning.

Zduriencik is convinced about Ichiro’s buy-in with manager Eric Wedge.

“Ichiro was very courteous,” he said. “He said he would do whatever he could to to help the team. When we began spring training, we sat down with him and he was very undertstanding.”

If by May 1 Figgins is hitting .200 and the Mariners are 10-18, that understanding may be tested. But since Ichiro doesn’t want to go anywhere, what are his options?

Similarly, for reasons stated, the Mariners probably have little choice but to extend Ichiro’s contract if he produces at about the same level as a year ago, which was about the major league averages at bat and in the field. It probably won’t be for $18 million, but neither will it be for more than the average major league salary ($3 million) because, as Zduriencik said, he’s a “historical” player.

Therein lies the rub. The Mariners, in decline from all aspects of revenue, can’t afford to carry that freight and win.

Unavoidably, Zduriencik demurred on engaging in speculation about options in Ichiro’s contract year.

“None of us has the answers on how things are going to be in June, or in September, or the off-season,” he said. “There are decisions we have to make with other players too. Some of those answers I don’t have for you now.

“Ichiro’s accomplishments are phenomenal. He’s been been spectacular, great for our community, for baseball and for his homeland. The concern right now is letting the baseball season unfold.”

As the owners and executives watch the unfolding begin in the Tokyo Dome this week, they will try to avoid speaking of Ichiro in the past tense, but the future tense is elusive. Therein lies the tension of the season.

As does John Elway in Denver, the Mariners bosses are desperate for a season from a star to give them a reason to justify a big gamble.


YourThoughts

  • RadioGuy

    Ichiro’s value to the Mariners only begins on the field.  The money the team has made in some way off Ichiro has largely balanced the $18 million a year they’ve been paying him.  No, he won’t get that kind of money in 2013 no matter who he plays for, but he’s been the one bankable player on the team for most of the past ten years (except, of course, for people who go to games to watch Miguel Olivo play when they’re not snapping up those Casper Wells replica jerseys).

    The business decision whether to keep Ichiro in Seattle is an easy one: he’s been money in the bank since Day 1 for the M’s.  It’s the baseball decision that’ll be difficult. 

  • RadioGuy

    Ichiro’s value to the Mariners only begins on the field.  The money the team has made in some way off Ichiro has largely balanced the $18 million a year they’ve been paying him.  No, he won’t get that kind of money in 2013 no matter who he plays for, but he’s been the one bankable player on the team for most of the past ten years (except, of course, for people who go to games to watch Miguel Olivo play when they’re not snapping up those Casper Wells replica jerseys).

    The business decision whether to keep Ichiro in Seattle is an easy one: he’s been money in the bank since Day 1 for the M’s.  It’s the baseball decision that’ll be difficult. 

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  • Steve60

    Ichiro will not be worth $18m next year.  (He hasn’t been worth it for a year or two.)  So, what will he be worth?  $5 or $8 or $10m?  Pay him that.  If the owner wants to resign him at a higher amount let the difference come out of his pocket so as not diminish the overall team payroll budget. Or, increase the payroll by the difference.

  • Steve60

    Ichiro will not be worth $18m next year.  (He hasn’t been worth it for a year or two.)  So, what will he be worth?  $5 or $8 or $10m?  Pay him that.  If the owner wants to resign him at a higher amount let the difference come out of his pocket so as not diminish the overall team payroll budget. Or, increase the payroll by the difference.

  • Bamfmaster123

    Just like there’s no crying in baseball, neither is there loyalty.  The logical thing to do would be to cut loose Ichiro now and put in a player from the farm system to replace him and in a couple years hopefully the Mariners will have a home grown winning team that will last for years.

    However the 2001 team was not a home grown team.  And his presence still has fans coming to the ballpark.  I guess it boils down to what kind of franchise do the Mariners want to be known as?  Especially to a loyal employee?

  • Bamfmaster123

    Just like there’s no crying in baseball, neither is there loyalty.  The logical thing to do would be to cut loose Ichiro now and put in a player from the farm system to replace him and in a couple years hopefully the Mariners will have a home grown winning team that will last for years.

    However the 2001 team was not a home grown team.  And his presence still has fans coming to the ballpark.  I guess it boils down to what kind of franchise do the Mariners want to be known as?  Especially to a loyal employee?

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  • Bobby

    Get rid of Tarvaris now as he is taking the snaps Flynn should be taking! Why waste time as we know Tarvaris isn’t the player we need at Quarterback! Flynn should easily be our starter and let the 2nd & 3rd stringers battle  for #2! Seems silly to keep him…

  • johntheonly

    As far as Jackson not having a pre-season last year; he had 5 or 6 of them in Minnesota, and he has reached his ceiling as a QB….kind of a 7-9, 8-8 guy. There were something like 13 teams between 7-9 and 9-7 last year, after the last few (yawn-grumble), exciting seasons of football, I want to see someone outstanding playing the most important position on the field. It should really be Flynn, I heard that he hates losing so much that he wins. Russell Wilson is really good at that “winning thing” too.

  • D_Hawk

    It is bad enough when part-time bloggers state “the Seahawks invested three years and $26 million” in Flynn. They didn’t. $7 mil of that is escalators and bonus money, and if he ends up earning all $26 mil it will be a steal for Seattle because it likely means he’s made a couple Pro Bowls and won some playoff games.