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August 17, 2011 at 10:44 AM

Mariners shouldn’t use the “Derek Jeter excuse” when it comes to Ichiro and any contract extension

ADDITIONAL NOTE 12:02 p.m.: The Mariners just acquired right-handed pitcher Chance Ruffin from the Tigers as the player-to-be-named in the Doug Fister deal. Ruffin was a supplemental first-round draft pick in 2010 and will join the M’s tonight. Aaron Laffey has been designated for assignment to clear room.
When I run into out-of-town writers on the road or at Safeco Field, one of the first things I wind up getting asked is what’s going on with Ichiro. They all see the declining offensive numbers, as well as the sub-par defense. And then, they nod knowingly when the subject of his potential contract extension and the grueling decision faced by the Mariners organization comes up.
Well, check that. They don’t all nod knowingly. Some of them look confused. They didn’t realize, they say, that Ichiro’s current contract runs out after 2011.
Oh, it doesn’t, I tell them. It runs out after 2012.
It’s at this point where even the ones who nodded knowingly now scrunch their eyes up and need more explanation. They don’t understand what the problem is. Can’t comprehend what the grueling decision is that the Mariners now face. That’s the point where I have to explain to them about Mariners baseball and how things that go on here in Seattle are not always the same as they are in the other 29 cities.
In the other cities, what’s going on with Ichiro this season would be viewed with some sadness, but also some relief. It would be like “Wow, good thing we got to see this well in advance before we even thought about an extension for two seasons down the road!”
But that element seems to be missing locally. Around Seattle, there’s actually a debate about whether Ichiro should be granted an extension beyond 2012. Never mind the mounting problem about how the team will use him in 2012. Some people are actually arguing about 2013 and after that. In fact, the folks I speak to around here, even those who don’t want to see Ichiro extended, seem resigned to the fact it’s going to happen. Some think it might even happen this off-season.
For the diehard Ichiro supporters, such an extension seems natural. They’ve argued to me that his legacy here means more than what’s going on right now. They’ll argue that his offense isn’t all that bad because his batting average is still in the high .200s, ignoring that his OBP is one of the worst among everyday MLB leadoff hitters. Or that his power is the worst among everyday MLB right fielders.
They’ll say he can still make the plays defensively, pointing to Gold Glove votes of the past. When you mention his career-worst Ultimate Zone Rating, the less saber-inclined folks will keep talking about Gold Glove votes while the stats-oriented Ichiro diehards will claim that UZR is a flawed stat — ignoring that they trumpeted his past UZR totals when they were good.
Nowadays, though, it’s getting tougher to make the numbers arguments. So, they’ll ask me whether I think Ichiro would accept a huge contract demotion to, say, only about $10 million per season. It’s at this point where I look at them with the scrunched up face and explain the realities of the team’s self-imposed payroll limits, the power shortage that’s plagued the lineup for several seasons running and how those kind of dollar amounts didn’t make much sense even when Ichiro was still producing.
And that’s always the way these discussions go. Once you shoot down the numbers stuff, point by point, the folks who still won’t let this extension stuff go start to turn desperate. They’ve run out of logical arguments, so they reach into their back pocket for that one silver bullet they feel they can still fire. That one piece of info that can justify having a discussion about 2013 and beyond when Ichiro is not performing in 2011. I’ll call it “The Derek Jeter Excuse”.
The argument is simply this: the New York Yankees knew they had a fading star in Jeter last year. But they signed him to an extension anyway, simply because he’s Derek Jeter.
That’s the argument. I’ve heard it mentioned by fans and even some local media members when it comes to why the M’s should honor Ichiro’s legacy and keep him here for years to come. And it’s a flawed argument. Dangerously flawed for the Mariners and where they go from here.

Even a cursory look at the argument tells you why it’s flawed. For reasons that start on the field and end off of it.
First, Jeter had his slowdown year last season and his contract was up.
Ichiro is having his slowdown year the season before his contract even has to be discussed. Huge difference. There is no pressure on the M’s to get anything done. They can afford to wait all of next season to see whether Ichiro can rebound from this bad year. The Yankees did not have that luxury of waiting to see whether Jeter could rebound from his .710 OPS season in 2010. His contract was up. Ichiro’s isn’t up.
Second, Jeter’s team has a payroll of $207 million. The Mariners have less than half that. So, if the Yankees want to give a bad contract out to Jeter by paying him $13 million this season and up to $17 million in 2013, it’s still far more palatable than the $18 million the M’s are paying Ichiro today in crippling the financial balance of the squad. Giving even $10 million per year to Ichiro on a team with Seattle’s payroll would be the equivalent of the Yankees paying Jeter $22 million per year.
Third, Jeter is suffering his offensive slowdown at a shortstop position that is traditionally not given to offensive power. He is also surrounded by power hitters at multiple positions on his team, both at traditional power spots and non-power spots. The same dynamic is not in-place here in Seattle. Ichiro takes up a right field spot where teams traditionally put their slower-footed power hitters. On a Seattle team that lacks power across the board. His continued presence in right field prevents the team from getting a power hitter for that position and there are not enough other power bats in the lineup to compensate for that. As for defense, Jeter has had his detractors for years. But Ichiro is also no longer a defensive force. So, really, it’s a wash between the two.
Finally, it’s tough to compare the off-field legacies of Jeter and Ichiro because they really are not the same. And even Jeter’s harshest critics would have a tough time arguing that he hasn’t been the heart and soul of a Yankees playoff dynasty that began 15 years ago. Jeter has enough World Series rings for every finger on one hand. And he has been smack dab in the middle of those titles as the unquestioned team captain, leader, ambassador, you name it. I was sitting at Shea Stadium in 2000 when Jeter singlehandedly changed the momentum of the World Series that year with big hits in Games 4 and 5 en route to the MVP honor. Instead of a close World Series, it turned into a Jeter-led rout.
Stuff like that does matter in this game. This game is played with the end goal of winning championships and Jeter — for all his flaws — has helped the Yankees win them. Yeah, he had more chances to come up big than Ichiro, whose lone playoff year ended in a whupping administered by Jeter and friends in 2001. But that’s life. The big players are often remembered for what they did in the big games. It’s the pressure big name players have to live with in winning sports cities and Jeter has certainly faced that pressure well.
Ichiro is in a different class in that regard. I’ve written before that I’m going to vote him into the Hall of Fame, but he won’t win any legacy arguments with Jeter. Ichiro’s is a different legacy. And not the kind you use to justify any foolish contract extensions.
Some will say I’m making too much of this. Will suggest I’m creating a “strawman” argument because the M’s have yet to openly say they’re going to extend Ichiro beyond 2012.
I’d prefer to call it a “pre-emptive argument”. Just in case we wake up in December and are told of a press conference to announce a new Ichiro deal.
Because there is precedent for this here in Seattle. Just three years ago, the M’s shocked the baseball world and created a huge clubhouse problem by announcing a three-year extension for Kenji Johjima fairly early on in a 2008 season that fast became the worst of his career. As with Ichiro, M’s owner Hiroshi Yamauchi was under no pressure to get a Johjima deal done that early. He could have waited to see how the season played out first since there would have been absolutely zero market interest in an aging, slumping catcher who was paid far more money than he was worth in that extension.
I can still remember poor Bill Bavasi standing at the podium trying to defend the indefensible. And yes, all of us who cover the team know that it was Yamauchi’s decision and not Bavasi’s — even if team officials have never admitted in public that this was the case. Not everything we know or are told is for public consumption. Let’s just leave it at that. But in this case, we know that the call was ownership’s.
As it will be for Ichiro.
And it can’t be. Not yet, anyway. Plenty more has to happen first to even consider an Ichiro extension.
This team will already face challenges with Ichiro in 2012 as they wait to see whether he can rebound from 2011. I say he should be given that chance to rebound next spring and that the team should base further decisions on what they see. Decisions about 2012, that is. Forget about 2013 and beyond for now.
Ichiro is under contract for 2012 and has every right to show up at spring training. This talk about pressuring him to go back to Japan is ludicrous. The team gave him the contract extension it did back in 2007 and now has to see it through. What it should be doing is upping payroll to accomodate the decisions it made back in 2007 and not forcing fans to watch what in essence is a $68 million on-field product without Ichiro and a $59 million team without Ichiro and Chone Figgins and a $47 million team minus the Ichiro-Figgins-Milton Bradley trio.
But hey, that’s the team’s call.
And now, that team has to let Ichiro come to spring training next year and figure out what to do next. We already had one messy Ken Griffey Jr. departure, so the M’s will have to have a gameplan on what to do if Ichiro’s skills have not improved come April and May. A gameplan for where to go in the leadoff role as well as how to find playing time for younger players who will be blocked by an underperforming veteran.
But that gameplan can’t involve giving Ichiro an extension beyond next year unless there are clear signs he can step his game up several notches beyond what’s happened this season.
And if it is indeed Yamauchi’s call once again, somebody will have to step in and say something. Whether it’s Howard Lincoln, minority owner Chris Larson, or somebody in some position of power within the organization.
The M’s keep asking a lot of their fanbase with this continued wait for the team to develop.
Extending Ichiro beyond 2012 at this point flies in the face of all of that. This “business as usual” stuff with the M’s and their peculiar brand of politics has to stop. Especially when the team now has the luxury of waiting an additional year with Ichiro to see what it is they’d be buying into.
The Derek Jeter Excuse is simply a cop-out. An avoidance, yet again, of making the tough calls that winning teams have to make.

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