Thiel: Absence of Ichiro opens Mariners' world

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on July 29, 2014 at 2:30 PM

Jason Bay is in the new cast that has aspirations to dissolve the memory of a decade of dreariness. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

The occasion of the Mariners' season opener brings up many traditional questions, chiefly: By which summer holiday ( Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July, Seafair or Labor Day), will the Mariners be functionally eliminated from the division/post-season race (April Fool's Day is a little too cynical).

Harsh, yes, but a franchise can't lose half its fan base over 10 years without some dedication to the purpose.

Another question occurs, mostly because it hasn't been asked all spring: Is Ichiro the second-most-unmissed superstar in modern Seattle sports history?

We know that Alex Rodriguez has retired the No. 1 trophy. But a lot of that emotion was because he went for the money after lying otherwise. All Ichiro did was quietly fade, then quietly ask out. But it wasn't his exit that was dismaying; it was his burden.

His trade to the Yankees happened a while ago, in July, so fans had the chance last season to dab their eyes, although little precipitation was detected. Certainly no moisture was detected in Peoria this spring. But it took the developments of the off-season and spring to fully appreciate how awkward his presence, performance and salary had become.

His moment of his trade, given Ichiro's contributions to the team and the fact that he was an owner's favorite, featured nothing but courtesy and compliments. But the fact was, nearly everyone around the Mariners was relieved, grateful and -- truth be told -- excited.

Didn't matter that he hit he hit .322 in 67 games with the Yankees, after hitting .261 with the Mariners (or had a .794 OPS in New York, compared to .642 in Seattle). Many wished him well, but not nearly as fervently as they wished him good-bye. Because it has freed up the Mariners.

His departure from a season already lost -- the Mariners fell below .500 for good on April 29, and were 42-55 when he was traded July 23 --  was of no competitive consequence. Now, it's a competitive consequence. They have replaced him with a chance to compete.

Ichiro became such a fixture that as the team decayed around him, he became an impediment -- in the lineup, in the clubhouse and on the payroll. He didn't want to move from the top of the order even though his on-base percentage dictated the bottom third. He was never by nature or culture a leader the way American sports teams expect from vets  -- in Japan, the manager and owners lead, not the players. And, through no fault of his, he was paid slugger's money ($17 million) to hit singles.

In 2011 and 2012, the Mariners were getting little from Ichiro and Chone Figgins, the senior eminences who were being collectively paid $26 million each year. Even before that, weirdly lopsided rosters contributed much to the franchise decline.

In 2001, when Ichiro won MVP and rookie of the year awards, the Mariners' 927 runs led baseball and were the second-most in club history, behind the 1996 team's 993. Since then, here are the run totals for the next 11 consecutive seasons:  814, 795, 698, 699, 756, 794, 671, 540, 513, 556 and last year's 619 (freak note of 2012: Five percent of the team's runs were scored in back-to-back games May 29-30 in Texas -- the Mariners won 10-3 and 21-8).

Certainly the decade-long sag in the offense was the cumulative responsibility of many, mostly management. But the near-untouchability and inflexibility of Ichiro -- how about talking a walk for the team, pal? -- became a focal point for the futility. By 2012, Eric Wedge was down to transparent bromides about Ichiro "deserving respect for what he's done," which is manager code for "I'm stuck with the guy; whaddaya expect from me?"

Now Ichiro is gone. Now things open up, finally.

The Mariners didn't replace Ichiro in the lineup as much as they dissolved his office. As they open play Monday in Oakland, they don't have a typical leadoff hitter, but they have a  left-right platoon between right fielder Michael Saunders (.738 OPS in 2012) and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez (.729), that figures to be more productive than Ichiro's .642.

They added four veteran hitters who supported their history of major-league production by delivering in spring in a way that no one saw coming  -- Michael Morse (.357, nine home runs), Kendrys Morales (.311, seven), Raul Ibanez (.321, four) and Jason Bay (.321, two). Obviously, even schoolchildren know not to project spring numbers into the season, but it is fair to say these guys established they can still place the barrel on the ball.

While all four are defensive liabilities to some degree, the Mariners have enough cover in Gutierrez and Saunders to make the sacrifice worth the uptick on offense. And left field and left-center at Safeco aren't the wheat farms of previous seasons.

The best part about the new acquisitions is that no deals are longer than a year. Without Ichiro rooted in right, Wedge can deploy the outfielders in any field and share enough ABs to see who, including holdovers, is worth keeping. In turn, the hitters can find out whether Safeco, with its new dimensions, is now a fair park instead of a pitcher's park.

The other primary virtue in the absence of Ichiro is that it allowed the Mariners to remove the cloud over the franchise that was the future of Felix Hernandez. They committed $175 million over seven years to a player at the peak of his game instead of one on the decline. And there is relatively little extra money dedicated to Hernandez before the 2015 re-opener of the club's TV deal with ROOT Sports, which is projected by some as a huge windfall.

The one every-day position unresolved out of spring was catcher, where in 55 starts last year Jesus Montero did little to establish that he will be a major league-average catcher. But that may be a two-month proposition. If No. 1 draftee Mike Zunino responds as expected in his Class AAA apprenticeship, he can come up in June after he passes a service-time threshold that will delay his eligibility for arbitration down the road.

On the mound, the bullpen is solid and the rotation less so, with every starter behind Hernandez affixed with a question mark. But the pitchers, too, are without long-term contracts that could prove burdensome.

In short, it's a prove-it year for most players on the roster. How very Pete Carroll. It wouldn't have been possible without the lineup and payroll flexibility provided by the final major contribution to Seattle by Ichiro.

Remember, he was the one who asked to be traded.

As late as May, according to people in the front office who wanted anonymity, owner Hiroshi Yamauchi inquired about extending Ichiro's contract, which would have been a debacle bordering on the epic. Ichiro is a very smart dude. Knowing a train wreck was coming, he got off early and let the Mariners appear to have saved themselves.

Similarly, the free-agent market saved the Mariners too, when the Angels out-bid them for Josh Hamilton, the brittle outfielder who is highly unlikely to provide five years of premium value for his $125 million guaranteed contract.

The decade-long hole  in which the Mariners find themselves is so deep they needed help to get out. They found it, however inadvertently.

Ichiro was the leadoff hitter for 10 of the 12 previous opening days. He missed the 2009 opener, replaced by Endy Chavez, when Ichiro became so overwrought about his play in the World Baseball Classic that he had a stomach disorder. Last year he was in the opening day lineup, but bounced down to No. 3 spot in favor of, ahem, Figgins.

For a dozen years, he was The Man in Seattle. Many are grateful for his deeds, and many more should appreciate why his absence from the lineup tonight is the best thing that happened for the 2013 Mariners.

 

 

 

 

 

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