Should The Team Do The Unthinkable?
On Monday, my latest piece for the Wall Street Journal went up, and it dealt with whether four organizations should consider trading the guys who have been the face of their franchise. David Ortiz, Scott Kazmir, and Travis Hafner were all great players in the recent past, but all of them have pretty significant problems right now – Ortiz has gotten old very quickly, while Kazmir and Hafner have seen their abilities reduced by injuries. All three of them come with significant contracts, and their trade value has plummeted in the past twelve months. They’re bordering on becoming liabilities who wouldn’t be claimed on waivers, given the financial obligations and their performances.
Those weren’t the only three I mentioned in the article, though. Ichiro was also included, though he’s in a different situation from the other three. Unlike Ortiz, Kazmir, and Hafner, Ichiro isn’t broken. He isn’t a guy who is underperforming his contract. Over the last three years, Ichiro’s on field value has been worth $18.2 million, $23.6 million, and $18.8 million. Since 2002, he’s been worth $118.2 million and been paid $69.5 million. Ichiro has been one of the best return on investments the M’s have ever made.
On average, he’s been a +5 win player for the M’s since arriving in the states, which makes him one of the top 10 or 15 players in the game. Consistent +5 win players are really hard to find, and Ichiro’s been a steady, excellent player since he got here. We’ve constantly defended Ichiro against the ignorance of those who claim that he’s overrated, because those people were massively wrong. Ichiro is a really, really good baseball player.
However, if there was ever going to be a time to trade Ichiro, this summer might be it.
As much as we love the guy and what he’s given to the team, there are signs of decline. In his first five seasons in the U.S., Ichiro posted an Isolated Slugging percentage of .100 or higher four times. He hasn’t done it since, going four straight seasons with essentially no power. He’s drawn three unintentional walks so far this year, putting him on pace to draw ~16 for the season. He usually draws between 25 and 35. He’s been caught stealing three times in eight attempts so far this year after being thrown out four times in 47 attempts last year.
During his first four years in the majors, he posted a wOBA of .360, making him a significantly above average hitter. During the last 3 seasons and the start of this year, he’s posted a wOBA of .348, making him a good but not great hitter. 12 points of wOBA adds up to around six runs over the course of a full season, so that offensive dropoff is equal to a loss of about half a win per year.
The 35 year old Ichiro isn’t quite as good as the 28 year old Ichiro. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, honestly. He’s still very good, one of the best right fielders in the game, but we haven’t seen the MVP caliber Ichiro since 2004, and it’s probably not a very good bet that we’ll ever see him perform at that level again.
So, the Mariners new management faces a summer of transition, where they continue to try to remake the roster to eliminate the errors of the past regime. During this transition, they’ll have to evaluate how each player fits on the roster going forward. That process needs to include the understanding that Ichiro is probably more like a +3.5 to +4 win player going forward than the +5 win player he’s been historically. For this team, right now, should they hang onto a 35-year-old +4 win outfielder?
I think there’s an argument to be made that perhaps they should not. The organization is absolutely swimming in outfielders. Besides Gutierrez and Balentien (who are under team control through 2012 and 2014 respectively), Michael Saunders is a 22-year-old left-handed bat with average or better tools across the board. You could go into 2010 with those three as your starting outfield and feel fairly comfortable in their abilities. The team is likely to draft Dustin Ackley, a polished left-handed hitter who should transition to CF or LF as a professional, with the #2 pick in about three weeks. The team also can count Gregory Halman, Ezequiel Carrera, Tyson Gillies, and Denny Almonte among the better prospects currently in the organization.
Assuming the team drafts Ackley, the M’s will have a remarkable surplus of upper level outfield talent. Not all of the prospects will pan out, but when you have this kind of sheer quantity of talent on hand, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ll get two or three decent players. Maybe it won’t be Ackley-Gutierrez-Saunders, but instead it turns out to be Carrera-Gillies-Halman. Or Balentien-Ackley-Saunders. The best way to get a couple of good major leaguers is to get a bunch of good minor leaguers, and that’s what the M’s have done in the outfield.
So, where does that leave Ichiro? If the ownership mandates that he’s untouchable, then you probably go into 2010 with Gutierrez in CF, Saunders and Balentien platooning in LF, and Ackley waiting for one of those spots to open up for 2011. Given that depth, you’re probably trading away guys like Halman for infield or pitching help. But, the question should be asked, is the team better off trading away Ichiro for those pieces and going younger in the outfield?
$17 million is a pretty significant chunk of the M’s budget. While Ichiro is worth $17 million a season, there’s a decent argument to be made that he’d have more on field value to a team that isn’t swimming in young outfielders and in the midst of a transition rebuild. Working on the assumption that the M’s are going to be sellers this summer, it’s at least worth considering whether the organization should consider moving Ichiro. He’s an All-Star player and one of the best in the game, but for where this organization is, the club might be better off trading him for help at SS/2B/SP, where the cupboard is basically empty.
I’m not advocating giving him away, and there’s obviously significant off the field considerations given the team’s ownership situation. But, for the first time since he’s been a Mariner, there’s actually an argument to be made that the team could survive without Ichiro.