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December 27, 2012 at 10:04 AM

Relax on the Raul Ibanez proclamations until we see what additional moves the Mariners have planned

Raul Ibanez put up an OPS of .812 against right-handed pitching in 2012, a split the Mariners hope to benefit from in 2013. Photo Credit: AP

Figured it wouldn’t take long for the Raul Ibanez signing to generate some angst in the local fanbase. Yes, I know, he’s 40 years old and he plays positions that the Mariners have some much younger guys slotted for. He’s not Josh Hamilton and he’s not Nick Swisher.

Here’s the thing, though. Ibanez is a part-time player now and a pretty good one at that. He is envisioned for part-time roles at multiple positions where the Mariners, quite frankly, need upgrades.

And we’re still only in December. The season begins in April.

Part of the challenge of doing proper baseball analysis is to view each move as a piece to a whole puzzle. And when you take a few deep breaths, consider where the pieces fit, then look at the Ibanez move for what it is, it is pretty easy to envision where it could all head as long as the Mariners hold up their end of the bargain. By that, I mean, as long as the Mariners don’t try to hold Ibanez up alongside Kendrys Morales as the showpiece of their winter moves. If that’s what they try to do come April 1, then by all means, throw an angst party.

Believe me, we’ve been on to that part of the team’s m.o. for some time now. Those of you just figuring that part out, welcome to the party. Yes, the Mariners have money to spend this winter — or so they keep saying — and it’s been difficult watching free agent after free agent sign with other teams when you know they have the OBP, the slugging, whatever, to help a Mariners team in big need of both. No more “Who? Who? Who?” this season, please. Put the owls to sleep. There have been a plethora of guys who could have helped the Mariners via free agency or trade.

And there still are.

I’ve mentioned Michael Bourn before and did it again in today’s paper. I listed his age last night at 29, but he actually turns 30 today, so he’s no spring chicken. Thing is, he still runs like one. He’s an answer to what will soon be a long-term need for the team in center field and he’s a solution for a present need at leadoff.

No, he doesn’t hit a lot of home runs. But we’ve said all winter long that there are various different ways the Mariners can go about bettering their team and this is one of them. Not every guy who looks and plays like Bourn has to turn into Chone Figgins. There are plenty of guys who have looked and played like Bourn who did very well at his age. One of them, Ichiro, even put up great numbers at that age playing home games at Safeco Field.

If not Bourn, the Mariners can try to swing a trade for somebody else. But I mention Bourn simply because the field of competition for him has narrowed, the Mariners will need a center fielder after Franklin Gutierrez’s contract runs out (unless they feel like paying a $7.5 million option in 2014 to a guy who hasn’t had a healthy season since 2008 — remember he had the knee tendinitis in 2009) and they need a real leadoff guy right now. The Mariners also have a glut of potential platoon type guys for the outfield corners and I spelled out for you all at the winter meetings how that could actually work with a guy like Bourn anchoring center field.

Personally, I like the idea of rotating Gutierrez, Michael Saunders and Ibanez around the outfield corners with Jason Bay and/or Casper Wells. Those are much stronger corners than the team had last year, plus, you’d get a huge upgrade in center.

And you’d get that upgrade for years to come.

This Bourn move is practically staring the Mariners in the face and daring them to make it happen. Daring them to reach into their pockets for some of that money they’ve been holding on to and actually spend it on a long-term upgrade rather than always saying they tried to spend it.

Part of the legitimate issue some fans have with the Ibanez signing is that, like the others the Mariners have made this winter, it is for only one season.

At this point next year, Ibanez could be gone. Morales could be gone. Bay could be gone.

Outside of that, the Mariners have Hisashi Iwakuma, Oliver Perez and Robert Andino to show for their winter. Doesn’t exactly help the offense long-term.

No, Bourn is not this team’s final answer. It would be the first step in an evolving series of moves that will have to be made for this team to try to get competitive again in coming years. But get your long-term center fielder now, then you won’t have to worry about it next winter and can focus on that bigger corner outfield bat you somehow failed — again — to land this time. This idea that you have to only be one bat away in order to bid for a higher priced free agent is ridiculous. I don’t know where it took root, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong. There was a report a while back that Theo Epstein and his Chicago Cubs were looking into signing Bourn, even though we all know Chicago is more than one (or two, or four) players away from contending for even third place. This piece explains the rationale behind that thinking and it’s the same one the Washington Nationals used to go get Jayson Werth a couple of years before anyone imagined them to be ready.

As for Ibanez and where he fits, we’ll know more come spring training.

But the critiques of him that I’ve largely seen have been pretty reaching if you’re viewing him within the proper context of what he brings to the table:

1. He can’t hit lefties.

Yeah, we know. Neither can John Jaso. He’s still here last I checked. I’d be more worried about Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley not hitting righties. Ibanez is here for his ability to hit right-handers, which he did to the tune of an .812 OPS last year.

2. He can’t play defense.

No, he’s not a Gold Glove guy. UZR actually had him in positive territory last season, but we all know UZR is unreliable which is why throwing around single-season WAR stats based off a UZR defensive component is dumb, right? Right? Right? Anyhow, Ibanez’s biggest problem playing left field defense at Safeco Field was running in on balls hit towards the line. He was actually decent at running back to the wall, at least, according to what John Dewan (inventor of the Defensive Runs Saved stat) told me in 2009. With the fences at Safeco coming in, Ibanez likely won’t have to be positioned as deeply and that should help him get to balls in front of him better. Please, don’t insult my intelligence by tracking down some .gif that shows Ibanez bobbling a ball hit to the wall. Do that, I’ll throw his 2012 single-season UZR at you in retalitation. Anyhow, he’s a part-time player here for his bat. He doesn’t have to play all-star defense, just try not to embarass himself out there. Casper Wells plays good defense but he hit just .228. If Wells hit like Swisher, Ibanez would be playing someplace else.

3. His OBP of .308 is too low for a corner outfielder.

That one made me laugh. Check out the OBP for every full-time player the Mariners employed last season and get back to me. Only Kyle Seager had a better OBP and his was .316. Michael Saunders had a worse OBP. Jaso is the only other guy on the team with a better OBP than Ibanez and last I checked, Jaso doesn’t play the outfield or first base. (And if you think he’d play those positions better than Ibanez, I’m wasting my time even writing for you). Look, I know that if Ibanez was a full-time player, his OBP would likely be lower. That’s why he’s here as a part-time player. Bottom line is, if the Mariners had better full-time players, they wouldn’t need Ibanez in a part-time role.

4. Ibanez’s numbers were inflated by playing in New York.

This one actually has some validity. Yes, Ibanez benefitted from playing home games at Yankee Stadium. I’m not going to go out on a limb, though, and suggest that every one of his home runs there was a wind-aided shot that cleared the fence by a foot. Ibanez also hit some huge home runs in pressure-packed situations in the playoffs, which has to count for something. Not every player can come through like that, especially cold off the bench. As for how his numbers would have fared at Safeco Field, all I can do is look at how he’s done there throughout his career. He’s a lifetime .828 OPS at Safeco and put up an .850 there his final season with the Mariners in 2008. That’s all we have to go off. Will he regress with age? Possibly. But I’d still take a .750 OPS versus righties from Ibanez in 2013 if it has to fall from last year’s .812. Ibanez isn’t the type of player who was hurt by Safeco before the fences came in. And if you believe his bat speed is slower, then hey, the opposite field fences coming in should help him, right? Bottom line: we don’t know how Safeco will impact him. All we know is, it hasn’t throughout his career.

5. Ibanez’s leadership intangibles are meaningless.

This is just the product of an uninformed opinion repeated by people lacking knowledge. There is a well-known portrait by artist and former pro football player Vernon Wells Sr. (yes, the father of the outfielder) hanging in the visiting clubhouse of The Ballpark in Arlington that depicts a major league clubhouse as a type of evolving organism on to itself, with living breathing components and a pecking order that is to be respected. Every clubhouse has its leaders to establish order. Just like every office has the same thing. Every group dynamic involving human beings breaks down into leaders and followers. This is essential for competing against other groups because the leaders — while not always the top producers — will be there to help guide, direct and console the followers. MLB players aren’t supermen, even though fans who don’t get to walk into clubhouses sometimes wrongly view them as that. Most players are guys in their 20s who look (and sometimes act) like the buddies you went to college with, maybe with some better muscles. They need discipline and structure. They need guidance. Sometimes, they need a hammer brought down on them. Guys like Jose Guillen, Mike Sweeney, Adam Kennedy and Miguel Olivo helped run past Seattle clubhouses. They helped guide the players who put up better numbers than they did, sometimes by example and sometimes with an iron fist. The coaching staff can’t always be there to do that. The guys walking out on to the field of battle (sports context only, please) have to be able to do it amongst themselves if they are to band into a cohesive enough unit to get anything done together.

The Mariners, as a group, have accomplished squat so far. They don’t give out trophies for the best mid-August team. They are a young group with a lot to learn about conditioning themselves in the off-season, let alone playing games in-season. Eric Wedge recognizes this. Jack Zduriencik sees it. Any veteran who has been around other teams can see it. Anybody who has played sports beyond high school level knows it. The Mariners might turn into something someday, maybe even soon. But they need help. Ibanez provides some of that help in the clubhouse. He provides some help in terms of part-time numbers that can make the Mariners better.

This franchise hasn’t struggled in recent years because the part-time pieces they’ve gotten aren’t good enough. They’ve struggled because the supposed talent isn’t ready for prime time and the team has yet to surround them with impact performers that can vault the total puzzle to a different level. USS Mariner ran a piece last week that suggested the problem with Ichiro over the years wasn’t his play, it was that the Mariners did not surround him with better talent. I agree with the latter part of that being a real problem. Ichiro on his own — up until 2011, in Seattle at least — was a good enough full-time complementary piece for any championship level team (as he was for the Yankees late last season). His skillset alone was never going to be enough to carry the Mariners to a title without big-time help. And he never got it.

Don’t take your frustrations about the Mariners out on Ibanez. He is here as a part-time player in a part-time role.

What the angst I’m seeing is really all about are the lack of full-time, impact players being brought in by the Mariners. And if that’s the case, hey, welcome aboard. It’s been going on a lot longer than some of you think. Time to raise the bar. Last I checked, Bourn is still out there.

Comments | More in Free agents | Topics: Jack Zduriencik, Michael Bourn, Raul Ibanez

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