For his first ten seasons, Ichiro Suzuki frustrated opposing pitchers as much as any other hitter in Major League Baseball. He was impossible to strike out, he could turn ugly slap-hits into singles, and despite (or because of) his disinterest in walking, he would still take a ball off his shoelaces and gap it for a double. He possessed a Rod Carew-like uncanny ability to square up un-hittable pitches coupled with a rock star identity and a rather elegant stoicism. What’s more, Ichiro was putting backsides in seats when the Seattle Mariners sorely needed something to boast about.
From 2001-2010, Ichiro amassed 53 wins above replacement, second only to Barry Bonds for qualified outfielders. He was in every way a superstar. But the decline in the last two seasons has been swift. For the last two seasons, Ichiro has hit a combined .268/.302/.341. Among the 58 qualified outfielders over the last two years, Ichiro is 58th in wOBA at .286 and 58th in wRC+ with 80. Go ahead and look beyond the stat sheet — your eyes can clearly see that he’s lost more than a step on the base paths, and his offensive skills have diminished to a level where he rarely makes much of an offensive contribution anymore.
Despite this trend, depending on the day and the delivery method, Ichiro is either likely coming back to the Mariners in 2013 or the club is having discussions about bringing him back. If the Seattle Mariners are sincerely interested in winning (more) baseball games, either position is rather negligent.
I get why it’s easy to love Ichiro. He’s been at the middle of a franchise that was stung by the departures of stars before him in Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson. He’s put together an MLB resume that will certainly be in the discussion for Hall of Fame worthiness despite arriving from Japan as a 27-year-old. He has been the face of the Seattle Mariners for more than a decade. But from an organizational standpoint, there are only a couple of reasons you consider retaining his services for 2013: as a fourth outfielder or sentimentality (also described as showing him respect, having loyalty to a player, etc.). Or both.
The Mariners aren’t likely to compete for a playoff spot in 2013, and they’re stuck in what seems like a never ending cycle of rebuilding, waiting for their youth movement to start actually hitting the ball. It seems extremely unlikely that Ichiro would accept a bench role, so if the Mariners did indeed bring him back, he would likely start in right field once again and block players that the organization needs to evaluate for 2014 and beyond.
The club ought to be thinking of trotting Franklin Gutierrez, Casper Wells, and Michael Saunders out there every day in 2013 to evaluate what their outfield will look like going forward as their touted young pitching develops. Even if you were an optimistic fan and you anticipate the Mariners to go shopping for one or more bats in the winter in an effort to compete in 2013, outfield is one of only a couple offensive positions they are likely to want to fill.
Ichiro only makes sense to the Mariners in 2013 as a bench bat/fourth outfielder, and if that’s mutually agreed upon, then fine. But that’s not likely.
The other notion is that Seattle owes him another year out of respect. You want to honor him. Be loyal to him. I think that’s nice. Even super nice. But even if the organization is getting pressure (or a directive) from their majority Japanese ownership to bring him back for a final year, is it really respectful to anyone — the fans, the organization, even Ichiro — to have him play another sub-par season?
The way you honor Ichiro if you’re the Seattle Mariners in obvious re-re-building mode, is to say this is his last year and you start planning the celebrations now. Give the fans an opportunity — both in Seattle and in cities he will play in — to stand and pay tribute to his amazing career with the knowledge that this very well may be the final curtain. Not by extending him to not help a stalled organization win baseball games. Certainly not by letting him play and play badly. If Ichiro doesn’t want distracting grand celebrations, fine — honor that. But watch the ovations pour down, regardless of his performance. That’s respectful and it’s better for the future of the team at the same time.
Some will say you need Ichiro to sell tickets for a team that has only one other draw and he pitches every five days. But what puts people in seats is entertainment. Winning is entertaining. Watching a 39-year-old bounce out to the second baseman four times is not.
When the rumors spread that the club might be thinking about bringing him back, there was some sentiment that the wide criticism on Twitter and other sites somehow belittles what he’s done. That it sullies his legacy with negativity. This is, of course, hogwash. When the Seattle Mariners re-signed a broken Dan Wilson for several million dollars in 2004, people cried foul, they just did it in front of their morning newspaper instead of lighting up social media from their iPads. Twitter didn’t exist.
Regardless what player we’re talking about, the criticism is of the decision making, not the player’s legacy. It’s an outcry for logic, not sentimentality.
Seattle fans love Ichiro. But they also want to see the Mariners win baseball games, and having Ichiro start in 2013 isn’t going to help much to that end. If he winds up signing elsewhere, so be it. But his legacy in Seattle ought to come to an end in September for the good of the organization, and the fans deserve the opportunity to say farewell with that knowledge.