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June 19, 2012 at 9:36 AM

Time for Mariners to start treating Ichiro like an equal part of this rebuilding ballclub

NOTE: If you missed my Talkin’ Baseball segment on Sports Radio KJR this morning, you can listen to it above. We touched on some of the elements mentioned in this post.
Ichiro had the night off yesterday and his right field replacement, Casper Wells, did what the former had been unable to do the entire week before with a runner on base. Wells drove a ball down the line for a double that scored Kyle Seager all the way from first base.
Throughout the past homestand, in far more critical situations, Ichiro kept coming up to the plate with runners on and chopping balls back towards the mound, or to the right side. Or, he’d pop the ball up.
Now, one game doesn’t tell us much about anything, except…
Except that maybe this Mariners team should be giving Wells a few more chances to show what he can do as a contributing member of this ballclub.
And accomplishing that won’t amount to rocket science. There is an easy way to get Wells two or three, or even four starts per week in the outfield.
First, you can get him one of those starts in left field against whatever left-handed starter happens to be playing, in order for Michael Saunders to have a day off. Or, just put him there on days Franklin Gutierrez needs off and Saunders is in center.
Second, you can start him in right field by sitting Ichiro at least two days per week, which is about what the latter’s performance dictates should be happening right now.

Will that happen? Probably not. Not quickly enough in any event. As I said on the radio this morning, this isn’t my team, I don’t have any financial stake invested in its outcome, nor do I want to try to manage it from afar or attempt the job GM Jack Zduriencik hopes to accomplish.
But what I can’t do is what some Ichiro fans would like me to do, which is to numbly drift through a bunch of 162-game baseball seasons, dutifully recording all of the in-game details while ignoring the fact that something truly bizarre is taking place in the bigger picture of things. Or, let me amend that: I don’t want to be one of those well-trained beat writers who ignores what’s happening all around and pretends that it’s business-as-usual to see a woefully underperforming 38-year-old playing seven days per week at the expense of players who are supposed to be a part of this team’s future.
Bad baseball teams have relied on bad beat writers looking the other way since baseball was invented.
No, I don’t envision Wells to be another Vladimir Guerrero. But hey, the team traded away a pretty good pitcher in Doug Fister to acquire Wells in yet another mid-summer deal that isn’t looking so hot for Zduriencik at the moment. Doesn’t the team at least want to see what Wells can bring to the table?
Let me make this easier. Doesn’t the team at least want to see what Michael Saunders can bring to the table? Because right now, it’s Saunders who has “earned” the right to play seven days per week. Maybe he shouldn’t have to give up any playing time in order for Wells to get on the field.
And maybe a team that keeps claiming to be rebuilding while making its fanbase continue to pay MLB prices instead of the Class AAA version should be doing all it can to speed this process along. Continuing to play Ichiro does not accomplish this goal. It actually delays the process.
It’s bad enough the team had to send Wells to AAA in order to keep a roster spot for Chone Figgins, another veteran with the stench of politics swirling all around him. The Mariners no longer want to play Figgins, yet keep holding on to him in some hope that another team needing a utility player will cough up minimal cash to acquire him. The desire for that cash appears to be enough for this perenially losing team to block the development of young players in order to hold on to a guy they refuse to use.
The situation is so bad, Figgins might be the first player in MLB history to throw a celebration party the day he gets released. No way he can be happy with what’s gone on. I’m sure he wants to play and revive his name.
Figgins, like Ichiro, is a former leadoff hitter who was given another chance to revive his career in that spot. He got four weeks to do so, then was punted to the bench.
Ichiro was also given a chance to revive his leadoff career and is now almost three weeks into it, having produced a .206 on-base-percentage with zero walks.
When I asked manager Eric Wedge yesterday about how much time Ichiro would get to “find” himself, I was told he’d play it by ear. In other words, Wedge isn’t sure. And why would he be? Anybody think this was truly Wedge’s decision? It wasn’t and here’s why. Every manager knows that no matter how good he may be at teaching young players, his future job security will ultimately come down to wins and losses. And the longer it takes for Wedge to start winning again, the less security he will have at his job.
And there is no way that Wedge or anybody connected with baseball who knows what they are doing can make an argument that playing a guy seven days per week with a season OBP of .282 in the leadoff spot enhances anyone’s chances of winning. Want to help this team win? Then Ichiro must be dropped to the bottom third of the order immediately and he must stop playing seven days per week until his numbers warrant it.
Yes, he has played better defense this season, though keep in mind that advanced statistics like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) have proved time and again to be unreliable over partial seasons. And thus, a statistic like the version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) that incorporates UZR into its defensive measurement will also be unreliable as anything but a general analysis of a player’s value.
Therefore, when looking at a player’s value, we should be a bit more skeptical about those whose WAR value is almost entirely generated by defense. Because nobody — even the WAR stat’s creators — knows how inaccurate those defensive projections may be. The most optimistic I’ve heard is that they may impact WAR value by 15 percent, but that’s coming from the stat’s staunchest proponents. In reality, nobody really knows how off-target it may be.
I will, however, grant that Ichiro appears to be playing better defensively this year.
I will also grant that he will be heading to the Hall of Fame at some point.
That still does not let the Mariners off the hook in their responsibiity to get this rebuilding plan going and not make the paying customers sit through any more 90+ loss seasons than they have to. This team needs to find an everyday right fielder and Ichiro clearly is no longer it. If they sign him to an extension, based on an OBP that has hovered right around .300 going on 1 1/2 seasons with zero power, then serious questions will need to be asked about the true nature of this rebuild and whether it’s being driven by owner cost cuts and personal motivations more than on-field realities.
For now, though, Hall of Famer or not, Ichiro has to be given the dignity that so many of his supporters are clamoring for. And that means, if he really hasn’t gotten the special treatment so many of his detractors have claimed over the years, it’s time for the Mariners to prove it by treating him like any other player.
Brendan Ryan might be the best defensive shortstop in baseball. But even he now sits a couple of times per week at the expense of an even worse hitter in Munenori Kawasaki because his numbers don’t dictate playing seven days per week. Teams can afford to sacrifice a lot of offense at the shortstop position in the name of defense. They can do it in centerfield as well, along with the catching spot.
But right field is not enough of a specialty position to sacrifice all of the offense the Mariners are wasting at that spot right now.
No one is arguing that Ichiro should be benched permanently and forced to drive off into the night like Ken Griffey Jr. did. But if the team learned anything from the debacle surrounding Griffey — another declining Hall of Famer — it’s that allowing his playing time to become a sideshow is not going to help anyone.
Ichiro tonight could collect his 2,500th MLB hit. Given his late start to American baseball, that total is astonishing.
And nobody is talking about it. And the fault with that lies with the Mariners and their stubborn insistence they are doing all they can to win games and develop players while that is clearly not the case.
Want people to stop talking about Ichiro getting preferential treatment? Start treating him like other good defensive players who can’t hit for this losing team. Stop playing him every single day for weeks on end and take a real look at what the next generation’s outfield might — or might not — look like on a regular basis.
Then, we can all stop focusing on what Ichiro no longer is seven days per week and perhaps begin to better appreciate the overall body of work he has compiled. And who knows? Maybe with a little more rest — like pitcher Felix Hernandez recently got — Ichiro can spend a few nights reminding us just how good a player he has been in the past.
But the Mariners can’t have it both ways. Continuing to play this thing right down the middle — pretending that what we see really isn’t happening — will only result in disaster. Let’s give Ichiro the twilight respect I’m sure even he would appreciate. Start treating him like one of the guys.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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