By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — The way Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik talked about Raul Ibanez during the offseason, you’d have thought they hired a coach, not a player.
Sure they expected Ibanez to contribute on the days he was in the lineup, but what everyone seemed most excited about was the impact Ibanez could have in the clubhouse. Something along the lines of full-time mentor, part-time player.
And Ibanez has indeed been a mentor to Seattle’s young players, leading by example with his work ethic, and leading with his words when he feels something needs to be said, or when a player comes to him seeking advice. But as it turns out, the old man can still hit a little too.
With the All Star break approaching, the 41-year-old Ibanez is, to everyone’s surprise, the Mariners’ most productive hitter. Heading into Saturday night’s game, Ibanez had the team lead in home runs, slugging percentage and on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and he’s tied for the team lead in RBI. With two more home runs Friday, Ibanez’s total climbed to 24, which is tied for third most in the American League. In the past 17 games before Saturday, Ibanez was hitting .357 with 10 home runs, 14 runs, nine home runs, 17 RBI and seven walks.
That production has forced Wedge to do what neither he nor Ibanez could have seen coming before the season — make Ibanez an every day player. When Ibanez signed, the expectation was that he was coming here to be a part-time player, someone who would mostly start against right-handed pitchers and provide a late-inning option for power off of the bench. And early in the season that was exactly what Ibanez was doing, but of late, Wedge has had little choice but to pencil Ibanez’s name in the lineup every day.
“I’ve been playing him a lot,” Wedge said. “… I just watch the way he plays, the way he runs, the way he moves, his level of awareness and being alert, the quick twitch, and it’s all there. I just don’t see him slowing down, so how do you not play him?”
Even Ibanez himself didn’t see this coming when he signed with the Mariners; not the every-day spot in the lineup, and not the historic production — he’s on pace to break Ted Williams’ record for home runs by a 41-year-old (29) — and Ibanez has now hit more home runs in his 40s (34) than he did in his 20s (28).
“I definitely was not expecting to play this much,” Ibanez said. “I’m trying to enjoy it. At some point late in the season last year, I started just acting like it was my last game. I started asking myself the question, if it was my last game, how would I act, and how would I prepare?
“I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can, because I’m 41 years old, I can’t play forever. I tried to use that approach to play the game, and I try to hopefully share that approach with the young guys and say, ‘Hey, time goes by really fast and just enjoy this.’ You guys know me, I’m always preparing and always running around and doing stuff, and now is finally where I’m enjoying it and taking it in and understanding that, like I said, I’m 41, can’t play forever. Try to enjoy it as much as you can every day.”
Yet as enjoyable as it has been to see Ibanez find the fountain of youth and enjoy one of the best seasons of his career at an age when most players not named Moyer would have long since retired, his mid-season surge is going to force the Mariners to make a tough decision in the next couple of weeks. With the trade deadline approaching at the end of the month, Ibanez is certain to draw interest from some contending teams who wouldn’t mind adding a left-handed bat with some pop.
Zduriencik indicated last week that he isn’t going to hold a fire sale, but he also acknowledged that he’ll pick up the phone when teams call, and teams are sure to be calling about Ibanez.
“I don’t think I’m going to be an aggressor,” Zduriencik said. “I’m not going to go out there and start shopping our players. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. … You have to entertain calls when people call, and they are calling. You have to listen to what they say and you have to ultimately do what’s best for the organization. If something makes sense, I’m certainly going to listen.”
But unless somebody blows Zduriencik away with an offer he can’t refuse, the Mariners would be wise to hold onto Ibanez. Never mind the fact that he has been their best hitter, or that, as crazy as it sounds when we’re talking about a 41-year-old, the Mariners might want to extend him for a year or two in the offseason, the best reason to keep Ibanez — again, unless the Mariners can land some team’s top prospect — is the reason we all thought Ibanez was coming here for in the first place. Yes, Ibanez has been shockingly good at the plate, but over these next few months he also has the potential to help the Mariners well beyond the end of his career.
Talk to Kyle Seager about hitting in the No. 5 spot in the lineup, and unprompted he’ll tell you how beneficial it is to hit two spots behind Ibanez, allowing him to watch the veteran’s approach against a particular pitcher. Ask Justin Smoak about his recent success, which he and Wedge both attribute to a more relaxed approach to the game, and the first name he’ll bring up is Ibanez, saying his improvement, in part, has come from watching Ibanez.
Things like chemistry and veteran leadership can often be overrated in sports, but a conversation with Wedge or any player in Seattle’s clubhouse will make it pretty clear that Ibanez really can help the Mariners’ young players grow. Can a mid-level prospect or two have more of an impact on the Mariners’ future than Ibanez’s leadership? Maybe, but it seems about as likely as a 40-something baseball player becoming his team’s best hitter. Wait. … bad example.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.