ADDITIONAL NOTE: 3:25 p.m. Please note the correction in the post above. Any money made on sales of Ichiro merchandise in Japan does not go directly to the team, but to MLB International for distribution amonst the 30 clubs.
Lots of debate on this site and a few others about whether the Mariners should consider trading Ichiro. First off, that’s not going to happen. The M’s are keeping Ichiro here for the duration of his contract and likely beyond that as well.
There aren’t too many teams in baseball that would trade for a guy earning $18 million per season unless he’s bringing more power than Ichiro does to the table. But that’s OK. For all the stuff we can poke holes in when it comes to Ichiro’s game, he still gets on base better than anyone else on this team, plays above average defense and brings speed to the table. Oh yeah, and he’s consistent. He does what he does best year in and year out. A front office that can pencil in 200-hits per year automatically from somebody (no matter how many of those are infield singles) will always be happy to do it.
And we saw again last night, with Ichiro’s catch at the wall in the first inning, that he can still bring an above-average athleticism to his game, even as he gets into his late 30s.
So, getting rid of Ichiro isn’t quite the best move the team could make if you want to get better. There are a long list of items ahead of that. Sure, once again, most teams with an aging player who can still play would be looking to trade Ichiro for prospects if they were in the rebuilding phase the Mariners now are. You can’t really argue that. Again, though, I’ll submit that, with his salary, you’d be limited in what you could get back in return from other teams simply because of the money aspect. Remember, the goal isn’t to dump a player who can still play. It’s to get real value back in return. And when teams would have to fork over $18 million for two more seasons, plus whatever he’s owed this year, it’s a little much to expect decent players back as well.
And it’s not going to happen, as I mentioned. So, there’s no sense arguing about it because it won’t work on both a theoretical front and a realistic front.
Still, there are ways to make the team better by keeping Ichiro. And one is to spend more money on the guys around him.
Yes, spending money will make the team better if you know how to spend it. You can stack up all the Justin Smoak types you want at a bunch of positions, but you’re not going to get a top prospect at all nine and even if you did, you’re looking at years of development still to come. Ichiro will be well into his 40s by then. The goal is to try to win while he’s still productive and while Franklin Gutierrez and Felix Hernandez are still under contract for a few more seasons. Not in four years when both could be preparing their exit.
On to the money and Ichiro.
We’ve been hearing for years that Ichiro’s contract essentially pays for itself. I have no way of verifying that since the Mariners don’t make such figures public and at best, we’d be taking a wild stab in the dark trying to pinpoint how much he brings in through overseas merchandise sales (please see correction on this above) and on ticket sales to Japanese tourists and Americans of Japanese descent.
We’ll assume it’s substantial. Because again, the justification for paying Ichiro substantially more than the average leadoff hitter — he’s making twice as much as Chone Figgins, who had the best leadoff OBP in baseball last season — is that he brings in all kinds of extra money. Pays for himself, so to speak.
And that’s a great advantage for any team to have. It really is. That’s the type of real value Ichiro can bring a team like Seattle that might not be generated any place else in baseball.
So, here’s the problem I have with how the Mariners are using that value.
We keep hearing, from the Mariners as well as fans and media locally, that the M’s, for all the criticisms of their payroll, do spend a lot of money. Yes, they do. Upwards of $90 million and sometimes $100 million since I arrived in 2006.
But wait a minute. Let’s stop and think about it.
If Ichiro essentially pays for himself, then what is being spent on the rest of the team?
The M’s opened with a payroll of $93.5 million.
Of that money, roughly $90 million was going towards the guys brought in for this season and the rest to departed players, Erik Bedard, etc.
So, let’s assume $90 million give or take a small bit.
If Ichiro “pays for himself” that means his $18 million is taken off that total. So, the team is really spending $72 million on 24 guys and then gets a freebie for their international cash cow known as Ichiro.
Yes, yes, I can hear the screaming now. OK, maybe the full $18 million isn’t covered this year. Maybe it is? Who knows? You sure don’t. I don’t. And unless somebody breaks into Howard Lincoln’s safe and steals the secret formula (I am not advising this or supporting it in any way) we will never know for sure.
But you can’t have it both ways.
If you’re going to argue that Ichiro pays for himself, then logic follows that the team is really putting a $72 million product on the field to surround its freebie.
What I would like to see is for the team to spend $100 million on the product and then throw the freebie on top like the cherry on the sundae. Then, you would have the makings of a competitive team year-in, year-out, as long as your GM spent the money wisely.
The M’s put up $118 million two years ago, so we’ve seen that it can be done. But Bill Bavasi did not spend the money in the best way possible. Does that mean you quit trying and spend less and less every year, as the M’s have done since?
Well, are you happy with the on-field product? I don’t have a dog in the hunt, but from a professional standpoint, I’d rather be covering a team night after night that had not cut so many corners.
It’s not my money. The M’s can spend it the way they wish. And you, as fans, will have to decide whether it’s enough.
Again, the only reason I am singling out Ichiro is because he does tend to be paid more than other players with similar skillsets — that is, speedy singles and doubles hitters who play above average defense. And the argument used to justify it over the years has been his ability to generate more revenue than the average player.
And I think it’s a sound argument. As good a pitcher as Roger Clemens was, it was tough to make an argument that he generated excess revenue outside of team success. I covered Clemens and can tell you the crowds rarely got bigger when he pitched compared to other guys. You can make the same argument with Felix Hernandez, because I just don’t see a major crowd boost when he pitches.
Manny Ramirez in Los Angeles is a guy who, you could argue, did bring about an attendance boost after his trade from Boston. But even the game’s best players, like Albert Pujols or Chase Utley, can’t always say the same. They are part of winning teams and that is what draws fans. If they were playing for losing teams, year after year, I doubt you would see a significant portion of fans coming to see them the way you do Ichiro.
And even if Ichiro doesn’t “pay for himself”, even if he is just like every other player, where his “value” as an asset is totally linked to the team’s overall performance, spending $18 million on one guy and $72 million on the rest of the roster seems a little out of whack.
Between Ichiro and Figgins, Nos. 1 and 2 in the order, you’re spending $27 million out of $90 million. One third of your total payroll. I defy you to find another team in baseball doing that with the first two guys in the batting order. I’ll save you the time — you won’t.
As good as Ichiro is — and I believe he would be an outstanding addition to a contending team as a complementary component — he needs to be surrounded by better players. Smoak may become one of them. Gutierrez as well. But a team of better players, that will compete at some point in the next few years, is going to cost some money no matter how much can be saved through youth.
Right now, an $18 million leadoff hitter alongside a $72 million team seems out of whack.
The key is not to trade one of the team’s best players. It’s for ownership to start using the “Ichiro freebie” more to its competitive — not financial — advantage and surround him with better players so he might be able to win a championship before his 45th birthday.