From a historical perspective, it should surprise no longtime fan that the Mariners have hired yet another guy to fill the position of left field. The club over 41 years has hired “another guy” for the job so often that in any room with 30 male Seattleites over age 30, advanced metrics have established that at least one will have played left field for the Mariners.
If you don’t believe me, Fangraphs published a positional case study for Mariners left field that lists all 176 players who spent time there. So next time you’re in a roomful of people in town, look around and see if you can spot Leroy Stanton, Mackey Sasser, Jolbert Cabrera, Matt Tuiasosopo or some such. One of them will be there, and I expect you to write me.
From a business perspective, the identity of the latest “another guy” isn’t too surprising: Ichiro. The one-time Mariners’ stalwart now so old he can remember playing in a Seattle playoff game, which means he can sidle up to a pterosaur and say, “Whassup, kid?” and be anthropologically correct.
Wednesday at the Mariners spring training headquarters in Peoria, AZ., he sounded most grateful for the chance.
“Even in the offseason when I would go back to Japan, I always came back to Seattle,” he said via an interpreter at a press conference after he signed a baseball-modest $750,000 contract for a single year. “This has always been my home.
“Somewhere deep inside, I wanted to return and wear this uniform again.”
The first year he wore the uniform, 2001, was the last time the Mariners made the playoffs, so the club’s marketing staff can exploit the thin connection to distant success in odd ways to distract from the sad math of four playoff appearances in 41 years.
But from the perspective of the future, the return of Ichiro is astonishing, and not in a good way. It means the Mariners’ depth is so miserable that they must reach way back to try to get ahead.
Unless Doc Brown and Marty McFly are sitting in a DeLorean outside Safeco Field, there is little room in baseball for going back to the future.
Yes, we all understand this is an emergency fix for an outfield temporarily crippled by relatively minor health matters. In Ben Gamel, 25, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger, both 27, the club has talented youngsters who are contractually controllable for awhile that represent the future. To hire a veteran free agent such as Melky Cabrera, 33, likely would require a commitment of multiple years that would set back progress.
And yes, younger players will be thrilled to hang with and learn from a future Hall of Famer, presuming his habits as a distant loner have diminished with his skills. He seemed to suggest he understood that.
“In 2001, I was worried only about myself,” he said. “If I didn’t perform, I wouldn’t be around. In 17 years, what’s different today is I’ve had many experiences. I’m thinking about what the Seattle Mariners need and what I can do to help.”
That might include planning for a graceful exit, should his vision, reflexes and coordination do what they do to all mortals over time. The expiration date for his second Seattle tenure could be weeks out. If that hasn’t been made clear to both sides, it means Chuck Armstrong has returned to the front office.
The most astonishing aspect in the move is that Mariners were forced to conclude that they do not have a player in the farm system suitable for temporary major-league duty in the outfield.
You know, like Tyler O’Neill.
The 22-year-old outfielder with the body-builder’s physique was traded last summer to St. Louis for starting pitcher Marco Gonzales. We’re a long way away from knowing how that trade works out, but we do know how desperate were the Mariners for starting pitching in 2017.
O’Neill was considered the club’s No. 2 prospect a year ago and was invited to major league spring training. In 495 at-bats for AAA teams in Tacoma and Memphis, he had 31 homers and 95 RBI. His modest .246 batting average was largely a product of a whopping 151 strikeouts.
So he wasn’t a polished MLB product on the verge of stardom. But young, gifted guys such as O’Neill can be taught the strike zone and patience. Were he in Peoria this week, there would be intrigue about his upside as potential replacement for Gamel — out four to six weeks with a strained oblique muscle — instead of apprehension about Ichiro’s downside.
Ah, but it’s all wistful speculation. Besides, believe it or not, O’Neill had only nine spring at-bats with the Cards in Florida before straining his oblique, and is out for awhile, too.
However it works out, the O’Neill trade is another example of general manager Jerry Dipoto having to backfill for holes dug previously by his general manager predecessors, Bill Bavasi and Jack Zduriencik. Then when Dipoto trades away infielder/outfielder Chris Taylor (Dodgers) and starter/reliever Mike Montgomery (Cubs) for magic beans, the backfiller has to back up to fill his own mistakes.
In the absence of any other MLB-ready candidates to help short-term, the Mariners’ re-hire of Ichiro allows the battalions of skeptics about regime change from the Howard Lincoln era to the John Stanton/Dipoto/Scott Servais era free reign to invoke the long-standing bromide of same-old, same-old. Particularly when the marketing potential is thrown in, longtime fans are prone to shout, “Stunt!”
For fans of more recent vintage who don’t care much about historic baseball pathos, the return of a celebrity may be of value. The opportunity to chant “Ee-chee-row! Eee-chee-row!” while quaffing $10 beers in The Bullpen presumably is for them a thrill that needs no explanation.
The Ichiro hire illuminates the Mariners’ chief impediment to success (other than the world champion Houston Astros) for 2018: Roster inflexibility.
They have a handful of big veteran contracts, a handful of promising youngsters, and little in the way of immediate farm system help.
They don’t have much chance to move the big contracts, although third baseman Kyle Seager and designated hitter Nelson Cruz could draw interest at the July trade deadline, but only if the Mariners are out of contention. And the Mariners don’t want to hire veteran free-agent pitchers or position players that will cost youngsters their MLB development time.
So for a year anyway, they are stuck.
It’s a decent team, capable of a .500 season. If Ichiro defies the odds as he has done before, they will have a splendid national narrative. But whenever he strikes out three times in a game, fans will ask what the heck were the Mariners thinking? There is only one answer: Sentiment.
At least the Mariners will lead the league in something.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.