Painted Into A Corner: The Mariners and Ichiro

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When Ben Gamel went down with an oblique injury during Spring Training, the M’s had lots of choices on how to replace him.  With two healthy starting outfielders in Mitch Haniger and Dee Gordon, and Guillermo Heredia still questionable due to off-season shoulder surgery, the Mariner definitely had some planning to do.

They could have taken a chance on MLB veterans John Andreoli or Kirk Nieuwenweis, knowing their need was fairly temporary.  They could have filled in with prospect Ian Miller for a couple dozen games and given him a sniff of the big leagues.  The Mariners could also have signed a free-agent with the understanding that when Gamel was healthy, they were likely gone, designated for assignment, maybe with a place in the M’s minor leagues if they were so inclined.

But the Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki.  A Mariner Legend. A future Hall-Of-Famer.  A Mariner fan favorite.

He’s also a 44-year old outfielder whose history with the team vastly exceeds his value on the field in 2018.  In a small sample size over nine games, Ichiro is much the worst of the four Mariner outfielders on the 25-man roster. He’s hitting a paltry .207/.207/.207 slash (never seen that before,) with a wRC+ of only 14, with 100 being average.  Defensively, things are just as dismal.  In left field, his UZR/150 is a ghastly -24.9.

Look all this is over a pretty small collection of games for a guy who had little Spring Training, is coming off a calf injury and may offer some clubhouse leadership and team chemistry. But, the bottom line is Ichiro simply doesn’t have the physical skills to contribute significantly to this team on the field.

And Gamel is ready.  And he’s stuck in Tacoma, according to News Tribune writer T.J. Cotterill. That’s not terrible.  I’m stuck in Tacoma and I kind of like it. But Gamel is destined to be the M’s left fielder, and should be in Seattle. Heredia should be the number four guy.

The Mariners have said they will carry five outfielders.  That is extremely unusual for this team and any team in this relief heavy era.  In the past the M’s carried each of the position players (3 OF, 4 IF, C) for eight, a reserve catcher, DH, reserve IF (who can perhaps play OF too) and maybe a platoon at 1B.  That leaves space for five starters and as many relievers as possible.  For this team, that’s typically been eight.

To keep a fifth outfielder means some one has to go.  Currently the M’s are carrying two utility players in Andrew Romine and Taylor Motter, but both of them offer maximum position flexibility because they can both play all infield positions AND the outfield.  Romine would assuredly stay because he is the emergency catcher. There’s no way the M’s will give up a reliever–not with this rotation, or in this day and age.

Adding to this picture is the Mariners have not needed a fifth starter.  As of this writing they have only rotation mates Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Mike Leake, and Marco Gonzalez on the roster.  Today they will need to call up Ariel Miranda to take the fifth starter spot.  That will likely require that Motter follow I-5 to Cheney Stadium.

Meanwhile, Gamel is ready, according to Cotterill.  He was ready on Sunday.  He was ready yesterday.  He’ll be ready today, but he’ll be playing in a Rainiers uniform.

The Mariners have no business carrying a fifth outfielder.  Who is going to sit?  No, really. Manager Scott Servais suggested on March 7th, the day after Ichiro signed on to his return gig, that he could play often for the Mariners.

“He probably plays four, five times a week, something like that, depending on the match-ups and the schedule,” Servais said.

In making this commitment to Ichiro, Servais, General Manager Jerry Dipoto and the entire Mariners organization set themselves up for a public relations disaster of the highest order.

If they release the Mariner hero and legend, they risk humiliating a key connection to the last Mariners playoff team.  Did they tell him he’d likely only be a Mariner until Gamel returned from injury?  My guess is they didn’t.

Releasing Number 51 would also alienate a significant portion of the Mariner fan base.  There are sizable number of fans with very long memories with incredible loyalty to Mariners past.  The M’s often market to these folks, some might say quite cynically, as the team brought back Griffey in 2009, Ibanez in 2013, and now Ichiro in 2018 just to recapture that nostalgia and (older) fan support.

But keeping Ichiro on the roster reduces the talent on the team, takes playing time away from better players, and takes a badly needed roster spot.

The M’s have painted themselves into a terrible public relations corner on this one.  If they really want to win, Ichiro must go.  These guys have gotten off to a great start, they show promise, it’s time to do the right thing.  Just do it fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid.

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