BY Steve Rudman & Art Thiel 07:00AM 09/29/2011

Ichiro creates a massive dilemma for Mariners

The Mariners are seemingly stuck with Ichiro, even though the club would, according to a team source, love to unload the right fielder, who is coming off his worst season by far in the majors.

An aging Ichiro presents the Mariners with a myriad of issues as the club heads into the offseason. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

STEVE: The Mariners completed Wednesday the 12th 90-plus-loss season (fifth since Safeco Field opened) in their tortured existence. I’ve heard from a source in the Mariners organization, who declined to be identified, that the move some would most like to make as the off-season gets underway is to rid themselves of Ichiro. But it doesn’t appear they will be able to do it, nor has Ichiro given indication he will walk away from the $17 million he’s scheduled to make in 2012.

ART: For a guy who was the franchise core for a decade, it’s amazing how difficult his situation has become. I can’t imagine there is a baseball-only staffer in the organization who thinks it’s a good idea to have a declining 38-year-old singles hitter play right field next season for $17 million, especially including manager Eric Wedge. That is not meant as a disparagement of Ichiro;  his contributions to the Mariners have been significant on many levels. But the franchise has been in the doldrums long enough that hard baseball decisions have to be made. The attendance drop to below two million — nearly half of their peak season of 3.5 million in 2002 — indicates many non-bobblehead fans are taking the club less seriously, partly because of irrational decision-making.

STEVE: The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Mariners front office is at cross purposes with the Japanese ownership.

ART: Majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, who saved the franchise when he stepped up in 1992, has a deep affection and respect for his countryman. But not only has he never seen the Mariners play, he either isn’t being told honestly of the situation, or is too stubborn to care. Regardless of the reason, the personal politics between them, and the execution of it through Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, Yamauchi’s rep on the board of directors, is impeding baseball progress.

STEVE: I’m not sure that “baseball progress” and “Mariners” fit logically into the same sentence, although some of general manager Jack Zduriencik’s young players seemed to come around this year. In any case, word is that Ichiro not only wants to play in Seattle again next year, but beyond that, into his 40s. Much as I appreciate what Ichiro has done, a player with his skill set should not be the “core” of any franchise.

ART: It’s entirely possible Ichiro could bounce back in 2012 — I’d guarantee it if he went to another team (that is the Mariners tradition) — particularly if you believe his agent, Tony Attanasio. At the end of a long story in the Sunday Seattle Times, Attanasio is quoted as saying the devastating earthquake/tsunami in Japan March 11 deeply troubled Ichiro: “It was an immense weight on his mind this year. It bothered him more than any one thing I’ve ever seen bother him. The area hit was very, very near his home in Nagoya.”

Certainly understandable, but why is that fact disclosed now? Why was Ichiro not forthcoming to the public about the huge distraction? If he were honest with club officials privately, why didn’t they take some relief action? Fergawdsakes, they let Milton Bradley leave the team for counseling, and he was far less valuable and far more hopeless than Ichiro. He should have been granted — or forced to take — time away from the Mariners of his choosing to deal with family/friend/business crises in his homeland, then return when he could be more clear-minded about his baseball job.

STEVE: Since only Ichiro knows the extent to which the earthquake affected him, any connection between that event and his poor season really amounts to speculation. Ichiro has been an incredibly productive player dating his days in Japan (1993). This was the first “bad” year of his career and it was bad only when compared to Ichiro’s other seasons. Even if Ichiro manages to “bounce back” next year with a more Ichiro-like season, he’s inevitably headed, at almost 38, on a slow creep south.

ART: The emotional impact of Japan’s national tragedy is immeasurable, and indeed speculative, although his words and deeds over the years suggests Ichiro is a very emotional guy, even though we Americans equate emotionalism with demonstrativeness (see Piniella, Lou). Remember Ichiro’s stomach distress following Japan’s win in the World Cup? He admitted to feeling almost disabling pressure, although you wouldn’t know to look at him. Ichiro is a brilliant, complicated guy, so much so that he can fool himself. Not trying to be cynical here, but the earthquake distraction could be a reason that screens away an honest analysis of the decline of his physical skills. Even though he may be the healthiest, most fit player to wear a Mariners uniform, he lets few inside to help him discover where there may be physical or psychological reasons for his decline. He adds only darkness, not light.

STEVE: He actually adds more than darkness: he adds to the offense’s lack of productivity. His .310 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter, terrible by any standard, was by far the worst of his career. Ichiro is a guy who needs 230 hits to get on base 40 percent of the time, because he doesn’t walk much. But his 200-hit years are probably over. Only three players — Sam Rice (1928, 1930), Paul Molitor (1996) and Pete Rose (1979) — had 200 hits in a season after turning 38. Ty Cobb never had more than 175 after turning 38. Historically, 200 hits is an achievement for far younger players. Wade Boggs and Rod Carew had many 200-hit seasons in their careers — none after turning.

ART: What you’re saying is that he is increasingly less likely to play the style of game that enabled him to reach the heights of Japanese and American baseball. There is sadness in that, certainly no shame. Your historical comparatives suggest that his superb play until this season has been at the top of baseball’s actuarial tables. He’s already outlasted nearly all of his peers in the narrow world of singles hitters relying on speed. The feats should be celebrated, not denigrated by a slow on-field fade that is likely to accompany the years after 2012, if not including 2012.

STEVE: I certainly have no wish to denigrate Ichiro. Regardless of the criticisms of him — this year and in the past — that he doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that, I have always found him utterly fascinating, especially from a stats point of view. Baseball Reference has a marvelous tool — Similarity Scores — that compares players based on their raw numbers and by age. Every guy on the list with Ichiro has been dead for 80 years. For 11 years, we’ve been watching a total throwback. Watching Ichiro hit is to watch Sisler-Keeler-Simmons hit. The other thing I’d say in defense of Ichiro’s game is that, except for 2001, the Mariners have not surrounded him with sufficient talent. Frankly, I don’t know how he can tolerate the losing.

ART: You have hit upon the central point of the Ichiro dilemma — what does he truly want? To win a World Series? To reach individual milestones? To demonstrate the values esteemed in Japanese culture, loyalty and responsibility, to fans and his employer by showing up every day for work, no matter the consequences to him and the team? Here’s what I’d like to see happen when Ichiro meets Yamauchi this off-season, which he has done every off-season: Have Yamauchi ask, “Ichiro, what do you want to do for yourself, for your team, and Japan? Please answer honestly and without regard to our relationship.” If Ichiro says he would like to try another team, Yamauchi should grant the desire. If Ichiro wants to stay in Seattle, Yamauchi should demand Ichiro’s undistracted best, as well as his deference to the club’s baseball needs.

STEVE: What are the chances of that conversation taking place, and what happens if it doesn’t?

ART: Small. But not impossible. It would take Lincoln being blunt and assertive with Yamauchi regarding Ichiro’s future, as well as the burden of his contract. Yamauchi needs to know that unless Ichiro and those close to him can diagnose and correct his decline, he will have a loss of face in America, generating some of the resentment that swirled around catcher Kenji Johjima. If the conversation doesn’t take place, what will happen is what happens in any relationship, business or personal, when truths go unaddressed — it gets worse.

STEVE: This story, I’m afraid, will not have a happy ending.


YourThoughts

  • crumudgeon

    This story will have a happy ending for Ichiro.  He will retire a very rich and accomplished man.  Sure, he won’t be able to play the game he loves anymore, but that is part of life.  In the big picture, Ichiro will end up in the Hall of Fame, remain a God in his homeland, and he will have provided years and years and years of financial security for himself and his family.  So no crying for Ichiro.  Cry for the Mariners and their fans if they have to suffer through more seasons like the last 9.

  • crumudgeon

    This story will have a happy ending for Ichiro.  He will retire a very rich and accomplished man.  Sure, he won’t be able to play the game he loves anymore, but that is part of life.  In the big picture, Ichiro will end up in the Hall of Fame, remain a God in his homeland, and he will have provided years and years and years of financial security for himself and his family.  So no crying for Ichiro.  Cry for the Mariners and their fans if they have to suffer through more seasons like the last 9.

  • http://twitter.com/FlagrantFan William Tasker

    The dilemma is further complicated by the Mariners beginning their 2012 season in Japan where that entire country will want to see him play. Enjoyed the post.

  • http://twitter.com/FlagrantFan William Tasker

    The dilemma is further complicated by the Mariners beginning their 2012 season in Japan where that entire country will want to see him play. Enjoyed the post.

  • Tbrakke

    Unfortunately the M’s will extend him beyond next year and the contract will not be in line with his fading skills. He will be a detriment on the field and to the team budget. I have been a huge Ichiro fan, but it will be difficult if not impossible for this team to build a winner with him occupying both a position and budget space.

    Steve & Art, you are right. It won’t be fun to watch as he fades. You would think we would have learned from the Griffey debacle.

  • Tbrakke

    Unfortunately the M’s will extend him beyond next year and the contract will not be in line with his fading skills. He will be a detriment on the field and to the team budget. I have been a huge Ichiro fan, but it will be difficult if not impossible for this team to build a winner with him occupying both a position and budget space.

    Steve & Art, you are right. It won’t be fun to watch as he fades. You would think we would have learned from the Griffey debacle.

  • Anonymous

    Unless the common threads of the Mariners’ miserable run are gone – Armstrong and Lincoln – the M’s can forget ever being any good. Gillick was, as we have found out since, a very, very lucky choice in GM and the ONLY bright spot on these two’s miserable Mariners’ resume.
    Next to these boobs, the Ichiro issue is minor.
    Ichiro is most valued being on a Japanese team at this point, yet it seems he really likes being away from that crush of fans and living in the U.S.

  • 1coolguy

    Unless the common threads of the Mariners’ miserable run are gone – Armstrong and Lincoln – the M’s can forget ever being any good. Gillick was, as we have found out since, a very, very lucky choice in GM and the ONLY bright spot on these two’s miserable Mariners’ resume.
    Next to these boobs, the Ichiro issue is minor.
    Ichiro is most valued being on a Japanese team at this point, yet it seems he really likes being away from that crush of fans and living in the U.S.

  • Anonymous

    As long as the Mariners are still able to make money off Ichiro via merchandising and TV rights in Japan (which are not inconsiderable, even though the novelty of his success in the US has likely worn off), they’ll keep him in Seattle.  Yes, he is paid far more money than his worth as a PLAYER nowadays, but never forget that Major League Baseball is a business…the Mariners have gotten more money back from Ichiro than any player they’ve had since Griffey forced his way out of town in 1999.  And opening next season in Tokyo?  HUGE financial windfall with the conquering hero returning to his adoring homeland.

    As a strictly baseball issue, it would be best to try to find a taker for Ichiro (even though that would undoubtedly mean eating at least part of his salary, a la Carlos Silva) and move forward.  But these are not “baseball people” who own the team and ultimately pay the bills…they are businessmen first.  And, yes, in Japan loyalty between employer and employee seen as a long-term thing.

    To me, Ichiro isn’t going anywhere in 2012.  The key will be what happens with his next contract:  Will he take far less money to stay in Seattle?  How loyal will he be to Yamauchi and the franchise?  Would he even be willing to restructure his current contract into a longer deal at less $$$ per year?

    Ichiro Suzuki is NOT what’s wrong with the Seattle Mariners.  Even in what (for him) was a poor year, he still led the team in several offensive categories and although he has noticably slowed up in the field, he was not the worst outfielder in an M’s uniform this season (hello Carlos Peguero and Trayvon Robinson).  Ultimately, what to do with Ichiro pales in comparison with how to make up for the disastrous decision to let Adrian Beltre go and try replacing him (on and off the field) with Chone Figgins at $9 million a year.

  • RadioGuy

    As long as the Mariners are still able to make money off Ichiro via merchandising and TV rights in Japan (which are not inconsiderable, even though the novelty of his success in the US has likely worn off), they’ll keep him in Seattle.  Yes, he is paid far more money than his worth as a PLAYER nowadays, but never forget that Major League Baseball is a business…the Mariners have gotten more money back from Ichiro than any player they’ve had since Griffey forced his way out of town in 1999.  And opening next season in Tokyo?  HUGE financial windfall with the conquering hero returning to his adoring homeland.

    As a strictly baseball issue, it would be best to try to find a taker for Ichiro (even though that would undoubtedly mean eating at least part of his salary, a la Carlos Silva) and move forward.  But these are not “baseball people” who own the team and ultimately pay the bills…they are businessmen first.  And, yes, in Japan loyalty between employer and employee seen as a long-term thing.

    To me, Ichiro isn’t going anywhere in 2012.  The key will be what happens with his next contract:  Will he take far less money to stay in Seattle?  How loyal will he be to Yamauchi and the franchise?  Would he even be willing to restructure his current contract into a longer deal at less $$$ per year?

    Ichiro Suzuki is NOT what’s wrong with the Seattle Mariners.  Even in what (for him) was a poor year, he still led the team in several offensive categories and although he has noticably slowed up in the field, he was not the worst outfielder in an M’s uniform this season (hello Carlos Peguero and Trayvon Robinson).  Ultimately, what to do with Ichiro pales in comparison with how to make up for the disastrous decision to let Adrian Beltre go and try replacing him (on and off the field) with Chone Figgins at $9 million a year.

  • Matt

    “The area hit was very, very near his home in Nagoya.”

    Umm, no it isn’t. That’s not to discount how Ichiro feels about the earthquake and tsunami, but Nagoya is on the other side of Tokyo from Fukushima. In other words, there are about 40 million Japanese with much more to worry about than Ichiro.

    The only way to get a happy ending here is for Ichiro to do the honorable thing and retire from MLB before the M’s ask him to leave, and play for another few years in Japan. That would be a win-win-win.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/FI3PA5YWIMT7CG5FKZTRH2XKKM Matt

      Funny.  My name’s Matt too and I was gonna say the same thing until I saw your post.  Nagoya is half way down the  main island and didn’t even EXPERIENCE any shaking at all – let alone any damage.  Nagoya is around 300 miles south of Fukushima and Fukushima is actually quite a bit south of the epicenter of the quake – it just had it’s coastal reactors swamped by the tsunami. 

      I wonder if Ichiro’s manager was taking liberties with what he said…

      As for Ichiro’s tenure with the Mariners, I agree with you but hope he can be productive for a couple more seasons.  I want him to come back (I live in Japan at the moment) on a strong note and then have a few more strong seasons here before retiring. 

  • Matt

    “The area hit was very, very near his home in Nagoya.”

    Umm, no it isn’t. That’s not to discount how Ichiro feels about the earthquake and tsunami, but Nagoya is on the other side of Tokyo from Fukushima. In other words, there are about 40 million Japanese with much more to worry about than Ichiro.

    The only way to get a happy ending here is for Ichiro to do the honorable thing and retire from MLB before the M’s ask him to leave, and play for another few years in Japan. That would be a win-win-win.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/FI3PA5YWIMT7CG5FKZTRH2XKKM Matt

      Funny.  My name’s Matt too and I was gonna say the same thing until I saw your post.  Nagoya is half way down the  main island and didn’t even EXPERIENCE any shaking at all – let alone any damage.  Nagoya is around 300 miles south of Fukushima and Fukushima is actually quite a bit south of the epicenter of the quake – it just had it’s coastal reactors swamped by the tsunami.  I have a “host family” in Nagoya and they were completely unaffected. I live in Tokyo and they had me come down to visit and relax since things down there went on unchanged.

      I wonder if Ichiro’s manager was taking liberties with what he said…

      As for Ichiro’s tenure with the Mariners, I agree with you but hope he can be productive for a couple more seasons.  I want him to come back (I live in Japan at the moment) on a strong note and then have a few more strong seasons here before retiring.