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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

February 21, 2007 at 9:08 AM

Tick, tock on the Ichiro clock

By my math, it’s now 160 days and counting until the the July 31 trade deadline and I truly don’t know whether Ichiro will still be here by then. The only thing I do know is that he is still wearing a Mariners uniform because I saw him put it on this morning. Plenty of you have emailed me to say you think we in the media are being played by Ichiro and his agent.
That’s always a possibility, considering said agent Tony Attanasio and Mariners chief negotiator Bart Waldman are set to meet in the near future. By the way, I should take this moment to clear up a mistake I made in today’s newspaper story about Ichiro’s pending free agency. Attanasio and Waldman did not meet in Seattle on Monday as I reported. They both had colds, cancelled the meeting and are trying to get better before rescheduling. That’s what I get for trying to read my own notes, taken down from accurate information provided by colleague Larry Stone. Sorry to all.
But back to the point of all this. It is always possible that Ichiro and Attanasio are playing us, but I don’t think so. Sometimes, you have to actually be standing there when a person speaks and not basing your opinion on something you saw on television or read on a computer screen. Besides, what is the alternative? To ignore something newsworthy that happens at spring training in favor of more speculation about how a pitcher will look during the regular season based on his first week of bullpen sessions? Anyone who’d take the latter knows little about professional baseball or the dynamics of spring training.
But that’s OK. We all have things we can learn at times.
Based on past experience, I’d be stunned if the Mariners weren’t at least considering an Ichiro trade. They have two young center fielders, Jeremy Reed and Adam Jones, who will need playing time in coming years to show what they’ve got. Seattle could have traded Reed, Jones, or both this winter but balked. OK then, what’s the plan now?
Ichiro will cost more to keep around in coming years because baseball salaries have gone up. The market for him arguably remains high, meaning his salary could be jettiosoned while still acquiring significant returns. Of course, trading a franchise player will lead to some inevitable fan backlash and in Ichiro’s case, a loss of some marketing revenue from Japanese fans. But how much? There is a firm number out there that the Mariners do pay experts to come up with. That magic number will determine how much that extra Ichiro factor is worth to them in dollars and cents. The team must look at that number and figure out whether extending Ichiro’s contract is worth it.
Let’s not forget, the Mariners haven’t even made Ichiro a offer his agent feels is serious yet. Ichiro’s opinion won’t matter until they make this offer.
Having seen this type of situation play out before, in Toronto with Carlos Delgado, the one opinion I will venture is that the Mariners have to make this call on their own. They can’t base it on how they think the fans will react. Sounds foolish at first, especially with some types out there already organizing petitions, boycotts and such, but this is about cold, hard reality right now. I watched a new Jays ownership, in October of 2000, give Delgado a four-year, $68-million deal because it was afraid of a potential fan backlash if he left town as a free-agent.
Trouble is, that same ownership had some board meetings the following summer and decided the best way to run its business was with a $50 million yearly payroll, not a $100-million one. Almost overnight, Delgado went from being a producing, intimidating (there’s that word again) hitter to one considered a financial albatross. It’s true that Delgado’s numbers and consistency both declined the ensuing two years, but even when he posted MVP-type totals in 2003 the Blue Jays still considered him a financial liability because of their improper planning three years prior.
The kicker is, Delgado left town anyway after 2004 and the Jays are still no closer to the playoffs. The fans, meanwhile, became more ticked off at the team on a longer term than they may have been on a short-term one had Toronto allowed him to go in 2000.
I watched Delgado’s countown to departure all through 2004 and got the same flood of emails from folks insisting the media was being played by player and agent. Those emails, of course, were all wrong.
Now, I don’t have to tell anyone in Seattle about losing a franchise player. You all saw Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez leave. You also saw it happen with only minimal impact on the fan base, new stadium or not. A big reason was that there was always a new franchise face to replace the departing one. In A-Rod’s case, Ichiro was there to take over and the team won 116 games.
Will Ichiro still be this team’s franchise face in a year or two? Or is Felix Hernandez ready to step up and fill that role? Can this team win something with Ichiro in coming years, or will it have a better shot at doing so with the returns generated in an Ichiro trade and the potential money saved on salary? These are the questions I guarantee you the team’s ownership is mulling over right now. And at this stage, the answers to those questions must be honest ones. There is no sense in ownership trying to fool itself into thinking that keeping Ichiro is the right move if all of the evidence it has gathered suggests otherwise. To do so would be akin to franchise suicide, given slumping ticket sales and the mood of an angry fan base that wants a winner soon.
So, I’m just as eager as all of you to see how this plays out.
To lighten the mood a little, let me just tell you the players were very jovial in the clubhouse this morning. Nobody was sulking over Ichiro’s comments. In fact, the players were quite giddy as they sat and watched video clips of team television commercials filmed the past nine years. This year’s commercials will start being filmed here today. The interesting thing about watching the commercials, even from the past few years, is how virtually none of the players in them are still here. Will Ichiro join that list?
Manager Mike Hargrove told us this morning that he doesn’t think the Ichiro situation will become a distraction for him or the team.
“It’s part of the game, it’s part of business,” he said. “Every team goes through it at some point in time.”
Hargrove then added: “To tell you the truth, I don’t ever think about it until you mention it.”
Glad to be of service, Mike.
Time to head out to watch the players go through rundown drills. Always a treat.
Mark Lowe has a noon MRI scheduled on his elbow. He’ll know later on whether he needs another surgical scope.
Jose Lopez told me he feels much better now that he’s taping both his ankles before hitting in the cage. If he’s pain-free today, he may take batting practice tomorrow and field grounders later in the week.
Love all of your comments on my opinions about the Angels, Richie Sexson, VORP and life in general. Keep them coming. I’m very impressed by the quality of some of the thoughts posted on this site. Some, not all…but we all don’t have to agree. Just stay passionate.



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