Sunday, July 27, 2008

Trade winds

Ichiro Must Go

UPDATE: The only player the Mariners traded was left relief specialist Arthur Rhodes. Ichiro stayed put. So did Raul Ibanez, who set a Mariner record with six RBI in one inning Monday and tied another this evening with 14 RBI in three games. After that outburst, the Mets might be regretting their failure to close a deal with Seattle.

We are temporarily abandoning discussions of politics and public policy because there is a far more important and pressing issue at hand. That, of course, is the future of the Seattle Mariners.

There is absolutely nothing important about the Mariners this season. They are the worst team in the American League. They already have waived two players who were in their Opening Day lineup and the rest of the team has been in a season-long funk. When their pitching staff actually pitches well (which is rarely), they don’t score runs. When their batters hit, their pitchers explode. They have some usually exceptional fielders who are having career years for errors committed.

The trading deadline, however, looms at the end of the month. It’s very likely that Jared Washburn, the team’s best pitcher in the past couple of weeks, is going to the Yankees. Arthur Rhodes, a left-handed reliever, is coveted by a few teams. But the big trade rumor is that our favorite Mariner, Raul Ibanez, will go to the Mets.

Definitely, the Mariners should trade an outfielder, but not Ibanez. They should dump Ichiro Suzuki before his skills diminish further and his trade value collapses.

Ibanez is a consummate pro and a team player. He is on his way to his third straight season of over 100 RBI. He is not very fast, but he still plays a decent left field and leads the team in outfield assists. I’m sure he’d love to play for the Mets, since he was born in New York. If he does, I wish him well.

Ichiro has been considered one of the best leadoff hitters in the game ever since he migrated to Seattle from Japan in 2001. The problem is, he’s not. Leadoff guys are supposed to get on base, and while Ichiro gets a lot of hits, almost all singles, he doesn’t walk very much. Thus his on-base percentage is mediocre for a leadoff hitter. On the Mariners, Willie Blomquist has a higher OBP. Willie who? Exactly. Blomquist’s batting average is 30 points lower than Ichiro’s, but his OBP is several points higher. Blomquist is just as efficient as Ichiro in stealing bases, as well. The Mariners would score more runs if he were in the leadoff spot.

Over the years, we’ve come to believe that Ichiro is primarily stat driven, and the stat that gets his motor running is number of base hits. In 2004, when he hit .372 and set a season record for hits, we often wondered whether he could hit .400 if he paid attention to the strike zone. It was obvious even then that he swung at a lot of bad pitches, expecting to use his speed to beat out routine infield grounders.

It appears he’s slowed down a bit, as reflected by his .295 batting average. He still doesn’t seem to know the strike zone, or if he does, he doesn’t care about it.

The number of times he has swung at an obvious ball on a 3 – 1 count indicates he would rather gamble on getting a base hit rather than a take a sure-thing walk. On several of those occasions, he has grounded into a double play.

And then there are the times he has tried to bunt for a base hit with a runner on second base, whereas a single that gets out of the infield would score the runner.

There are reports that Ichiro hasn’t been motivated to excel this year because the team is losing. He doesn’t get it. The superstar is supposed to play harder and motivate the rest of the team when the going gets tough. Instead, the only Mariners putting out are Ibanez and Jose Lopez.

It’s likely that most of baseball’s general managers are hip to Ichiro, but he still is a superstar who draws big crowds. He’d be huge in Los Angeles or New York. (Also in San Francisco, but the Giants aren’t in a pennant race this year.)

There are other downsides: he’s almost 35 (a year younger than Ibanez) and has four years left on a $90 million contract. The Mariners would have to get a lot of really good prospects, and probably at least a couple of established players, in return.

That last negative, however, is why the Mariners should trade him. Under the era of the hastily-departed Bill Bavasi, the team made some egregious moves. Bavasi signed free agents to ridiculous contracts based on flimsy evidence (e.g., Adrian Beltre, signed to a mega contract after one anomalous season of 48 home runs, who since has been just fair to middling.) Worse, Bavasi traded top prospects away for questionable veterans. Now, the Mariners minor league farm system is depleted and weak. If they trade a couple of pitchers this season, we wonder who is going to be able to get the opposite team out.

This year has already been written off. Probably the same for next season. But for rebuilding a team to compete in a few more years, Ichiro needs to go.

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