Five outfielders is too many, especially when one is hitting .212. If the Mariners choose to concoct more maneuvering to keep Ichiro on the roster, it will look like they care more about nostalgia and gate sales than winning.
The Ichiro moment of truth is coming quickly.
The Mariners are doing everything within their power to put it off as long as they can, juggling the roster with moves that delay the inevitable, but you can see where this is going.
Heck, you could see it coming the day in early March they signed Ichiro after Ben Gamel went down. It was a feel-good event, bringing back the icon for one last fling, and Ichiro got his deserved ovation on opening day and many more after. But at some point, everyone knew, there was going to be a reckoning.
And it’s here now. Gamel is back in the lineup. The Mariners have five active outfielders, one more than any team needs. And by any measure — other than career achievement — Ichiro is a distant fifth.
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Sadly, it’s time.
It would not be easy for the organization to part ways with Ichiro, who has meant so much to the Mariners, and to Seattle. Yet this is the scenario that they set up the moment they brought him in. It was not in their winter blueprint to have a 44-year-old outfielder on the roster, and he has shown nothing in his play this season to warrant a change to make it so. If they choose to go another route, concoct more maneuvering to keep him on the roster, it will look like they care more about nostalgia and gate sales than winning.
This is not an Ichiro-bashing column, by the way. I bow to no one in my admiration for his accomplishments and the brilliance of his career. He’s provided some of the greatest memories of my lifetime watching and covering baseball. I have deep respect for how hard he’s worked to survive this long in the majors. I appreciate the way he’s fit in this Mariners ballclub, providing a great example for the younger players of what it takes to be a pro.
Ichiro is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and an all-time Mariner legend. It’s not an indictment to say — with regret and melancholy — that despite all that, it’s time to end this experiment.
This is the natural order of things. What’s unnatural is playing and contributing at age 44. Ichiro has given it a valiant effort, but Father Time remains undefeated. Even the esteemed Ichiro, with his unparalleled work ethic and his desire to play until age 50, is finding that out.
Ichiro is hitting an exceedingly weak .212 in 33 at-bats — so weak (all singles, no walks) that his on-base and slugging percentage are also .212, never a good sign. He made one dazzling catch to save a home run in the opening series, but has looked shaky on other balls. When Ichiro plays, which figures to be with much less frequency now that Gamel is back, he is often replaced on defense late in games. It’s hard to pinpoint what he offers other than leadership, which is not enough on a veteran-heavy team trying to end a long playoff drought. We just saw these past three days against the Astros that they need all the production they can muster.
The flash point may come on Sunday, when the Mariners have to activate a fifth starter. Or it might come shortly after that, when first baseman Ryon Healy comes off the disabled list.
Eventually, the Mariners are going to have to decide if they need eight relievers, as has become the industry standard, or if they can get by with seven. If it’s the former, then that leaves a three-man bench — the backup catcher, the utility infielder, and a fourth outfielder. By any possible measure, Guillermo Heredia is far more valuable at this juncture than Ichiro — at the plate, on defense, on the bases.
If they decide to scrape by with seven relievers — dangerous with a rotation that only rarely works into the seventh inning — then a far better case could be made for giving the extra spot to Dan Vogelbach or Taylor Motter, rather than keeping a fifth outfielder for whom playing time will be hard for manager Scott Servais to find.
What would keep Ichiro around — and it’s a powerful force — is sentiment and reverence for his stature, mixed with the hope that Ichiro will eventually find his groove after a shortened spring and a calf injury. But his recent resume doesn’t give much hope for that. They could possibly manipulate a spot on the disabled list for him, but that only delays the hard question.
I was at Candlestick Park, working, on May 28, 1989, when Mike Schmidt played his final game for the Phillies. He went 0 for 3, saw his average drop to .203, and decided that, at age 39, he had reached the end of the line. The next day, Schmidt announced his retirement.
There’s no shame in running out of time. It happens to everyone — even the great Ichiro.