What To Do With Ichiro
At 29-40, the Mariners are – as expected – not contending for any kind of postseason berth this year. They’re playing for the future, hoping to find a core group of kids who they can trust to play meaningful roles the next time the team actually is a contender. While they haven’t just thrown all the veterans overboard and completely punted the season, there’s no question that the focus of the organization is still in development and evaluation. And now that the team has a full complement of interesting under-30 outfielders available on a daily basis, the organization is going to have to decide how they should handle Ichiro over the final three months of the season.
His disastrous June performance has pushed his season line down to .255/.282/.363, even worse numbers than he posted last year. While his .263 BABIP is the main culprit, there’s no question that his attempt to adapt to the #3 spot in the line-up changed his approach at the plate, and not for the better. Ichiro’s at his best when he’s hitting the ball on the ground, but he’s posting (by far) the lowest ground ball rate of his career, and he doesn’t have enough power to be an effective fly ball hitter. Even if he can make some adjustments and get back some version of what he was previously, he’s no longer a significantly better hitter than the other available options.
ZIPS rest-of-season wOBA projections:
That projection accounts for a 30 point uptick from his current BABIP, so even with regression in that area, we can’t expect Ichiro to outhit the other options on the roster. Of course, his defense and baserunning provide value as well, so Ichiro is still useful, but there’s no longer a big gap between his expected value and the value of the guy who would replace him in the line-up. So, with four similarly valuable outfielders to choose from, how much should the 38-year-old play on a team that is focused on the future?
The answer is made a little bit easier by the fact that Franklin Gutierrez can’t be expected to play everyday, so there are regularly going to be days when the team really only has three options, since Guti will need a day off to stay healthy. On those days, obviously, Ichiro plays. But what about the days when Guti’s not available? What then?
If a left-handed pitcher is on the mound, Casper Wells needs to be in the line-up. And as long as he’s available, so does Gutierrez. So, that leaves one spot for Ichiro and Saunders, and we probably don’t want to be in a situation where Saunders is sitting against most left-handers in the second half of the year. The team needs to see whether he can sustain enough offensive value to be penciled in as a regular next year, and getting him at-bats has to be a priority. For his career, Ichiro doesn’t have much of a platoon split, but benching him against left-handers isn’t so much about him as it about the other guys on the roster. With two right-handed bats and a 25-year-old lefty who the organization needs to keep evaluating, it’s hard to make a case for Ichiro playing the outfield against LHPs on a regular basis over the rest of the season.
But what about against right-handers, who make up about 75% of all starting pitchers in baseball? Saunders is an obvious choice for one spot there, leaving two spots for three choices between Wells, Gutierrez, and Ichiro. And here, it’s probably not as vital to get the younger guys in the line-up every day. For one thing, neither is all that young, so evaluating them is a bit different than with a guy who is still developing like Saunders. Wells is on a nice hot streak at the moment, but he still profiles as more of a fourth outfielder than anything else. His lack of contact skills limit his upside, and while he can be a useful part-time player, he’s not a guy the team should be looking at as a full time player on a winning team. And, with Gutierrez, hitting right-handers has never been on a strong point, and giving him regular days off against tough RHPs is probably a decent way to keep his confidence up and his wear and tear down.
So, if Wells and Gutierrez essentially split time against righties for now, that’s not a sacrifice that will harm the organization’s ability to develop or evaluate pieces for the future. This isn’t to say that Ichiro has to play against every right-handed pitcher, but the team still gives themselves their best chance of winning by having him in the line-up against right-handers, and that chance to win isn’t coming at the expense of guys that need to be playing against all right-handers.
However, this calculus changes a bit when Mike Carp’s “rehab assignment” comes to an end in a month or so. Once they assign him to Tacoma, he only has 20 days down there before they have to bring him back to the big club, and while Carp is also a guy who is probably a part-time player on a winning club, he’s a guy that deserves to play against right-handers. While he fits best at DH, having him there pushes either Montero or John Jaso to the bench, and it’s probably not in the organization’s best interests either long term or short term to be taking those guys out of the line-up against righties. So, if you’re trying to get Saunders, Carp, Jaso, and Montero into the line-up against all righties, that uses up C, DH, and two outfield spots, leaving just one spot for Ichiro, Gutierrez, or Wells. And while I don’t think the team needs to prioritize playing both Guti and Wells against right-handers, they also shouldn’t be in a position where both of them are regularly on the bench. Both guys could have roles on the 2013 Mariners, and sitting them in 70% of the remaining games after Carp returns isn’t a great use of available playing time.
At some point in July, the team is probably going to have to make a decision on how much Ichiro is going to play over the final two months of the season, and it should probably be less than he would like to play. And that means the team needs to figure this out ahead of time. The last time they had an aging former star who they wanted to move to a diminished role, it didn’t go very well, and the aftermath of the situation got Don Wakamatsu fired. You would imagine that the organization has learned from that debacle, and will attempt to communicate with Ichiro better, or at least make sure that the situation is transparent enough that they don’t come off as the bad guys if Ichiro doesn’t like his new role.
Because he has 10-and-5 rights, the team can’t trade Ichiro without his consent, and I’m sure Jack Zduriencik couldn’t trade Ichiro without ownership approval even if Ichiro agreed to a deal. So, it’s not nearly as simple as just saying “ship him to a contender”. But, it’s probably worth beginning the conversation with the necessary parties. If Ichiro wants to finish out the season on a contending team, that might be the best outcome for everyone, avoiding any potential ugliness if he ends up finishing his Mariner career as a part-time player. But if Ichiro doesn’t want to go anywhere – and given the cultural dynamics of living in a foreign country, his situation is quite a bit different than a typical players – then the team needs to figure out a plan that doesn’t end up in a PR disaster.
I’m sure they would have preferred if Ichiro would have just hit well and made all this a non-issue, but he hasn’t, and so now the question of how much Ichiro should play in the second half of the year is a legitimate question. They have room for him to play fairly regularly, but he probably shouldn’t be an everyday guy anymore, at least not on this team. And if he doesn’t want to change cities mid-season, that means that the organization needs to have a better plan than when they tried this with Ken Griffey Jr a couple of years ago.
Carp’s “injury” buys them some time. They don’t have to make any of these decisions today, or even this month. But, with the trade deadline coming and a potentially overcrowded OF/DH situation occurring upon Carp’s return, this isn’t something that they can put off for much longer. Whether he’s amenable to a trade probably needs to be figured out now, and if he isn’t, a suitable plan that allows for a graceful finish to his career should be put in place. While he’s not what he used to be, he’s still one of the best players in franchise history, and the Mariners can’t afford to keep having those guys end their careers in Seattle on a bad note.