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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 2, 2012 at 8:29 AM

Ichiro’s departure and the Mariners’ surge

An interesting narrative is starting to emerge as the Mariners continue their torrid streak, which sees them now riding a seven-game winning streak.

They’re winning because Ichiro is gone.

I heard this discussed on the radio yesterday, and this morning, as I fly to New York, I read this tweet from Jon Heyman (all hail to to In-Flight Wifi, the greatest invention since, well, Wi-Fi on the ground):

#mariners won’t say it aloud. But they were relieved/thrilled to trade ichiro and the 1-man circus. Sea has won 7 straight

Sorry, I don’t buy it. Not completely, anyway. First of all, the phrase “correlation is not causation” jumps to mind. Yes, they are now 8-2 since Ichiro was traded. They are also 8-1 since Justin Smoak was sent down, 7-0 since radio host Mike Greenburg of “Mike and Mike” adopted the Mariners as his favorite team (as the result of a mini-feud between Eric Wedge and Greenburg’s co-host Mike Golic, who dissed the Mariners on the air), and 6-0 since the trash collectors went on strike.

Keep this is mind: Before the Ichiro trade, the Mariners had completed a very good road trip in which they went 5-2, winning three out of four against Kansas City and two of three against Tampa Bay. I’d say it’s more plausible that the Mariners were simply reaching a point where things were starting to click, as Wedge has forecast all season long. The momentum was building before Ichiro was traded on July 23.

And keep this in mind: This win streak has been built with four wins against those same Royals, who right now are a poor excuse for a baseball team. They also feasted on a struggling Ricky Romero and the mediocre offerings of Aaron Laffey. ‘m not belittling those wins at all – it is the mark of a maturing team that they exploit opportunities such as those. There was a time, not long ago, when the Mariners were the ones that other teams feasted upon.

But I’m not quite ready to declare a re-born Mariners ballclub. I’ll re-evaluate after this rugged roadtrip to face the Yankees, Orioles and Angels. If they are still surging, then I’ll buy into a full-borne resurgence. Heck, I’ll even start paying closer attention to the “WCGB” (wild-card game behind) category in the standings, which right now read a very enticing “7 ½” next to the Mariners.

I’m certainly not ready to say that the departure of Ichiro has had such a liberating effect that the giddy Mariners are finally reaching their potential because of it. Frankly, I never witnessed a “1-man circus” surrounding Ichiro. In fact, I thought the prevailing criticism was that he was aloof and standoffish from his teammates. The Japanese media that followed him was circumspect and respectful, never causing any sort of circus-atmosphere. Ichiro himself was always an unobtrusive presence.

That said, I believe the departure of Ichiro has certainly helped the Mariners. It has allowed Wedge to write out the lineup that he wants to, unencumbered by the need to placate a declining player with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. It has allowed him to use the open outfield spot to showcase more of the young players that the Mariners hope will be a part of a brighter future (though it didn’t work out so well with Carlos Peguero, who was 1-for-20 with 12 strikeouts as the post-Ichiro right fielder).

Has it changed the clubhouse dynamic? I don’t think there’s any question about that. You take out a player of the stature of Ichiro, and there’s no doubt things change. Perhaps it emboldens the younger players to be themselves more. Perhaps there was some quiet resentment of Ichiro’s entitlement issues (by which I mean his unwavering spot in the lineup, and at the top of the batting order, when performance dictated otherwise) though I honestly didn’t detect any animosity toward him – only respect for his career accomplishments. We all know there’s been anti-Ichiro factions on the Mariners in the past, but most of the current guys were so concerned with forging their own spot in the majors that they didn’t have the time, or, frankly, the status — to resent Ichiro.

Here’s what I think, bottom line: The Mariners are winning because they are playing well against some vulnerable teams. The Mariners are playing well because they have a young, growing team that is finally figuring some things out. The departure of Ichiro has removed a declining veteran from the mix, and that has been a benefit. But I think it’s unfair to Ichiro — and to the young players trying to find their way in the major leagues that are now starting to have a lot of hard work,and hard knocks, pay off– to say that all the Mariners need to soar was for him to get lost.

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