What To Do With Ichiro

Dave · June 19, 2012 at 10:55 am · Filed Under Mariners 

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:

Saunders: .304
Wells: .304
Gutierrez: .295
Ichiro: .292

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.


73 Responses to “What To Do With Ichiro”

  1. samregens on June 19th, 2012 6:42 pm

    “Is seeing if Mike Carp or Casper Wells is going to beat their odds of being more than a bit player at the MLB level worth publicly dissing your HOF OFer? Probably not.”

    Well said, eponymous coward.

  2. samregens on June 19th, 2012 6:53 pm

    “What I’m struggling with is why exactly he’s declined so much. Usually the player loses a step or a bit of bat speed. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ichiro (at least to my eye).”

    That’s a great point. It is just the approach in my opinion.
    Ichiro has not lost that ability (at least not yet) which made him a sure lock Hall of Famer.
    He has looked phenomenal on defense and his contact skills appear to be as good as ever.

    I think Ichiro needs to be given full playing time to show what he has. After jerking him around in the lineup to accommodate mediocre players this is the least management must do. And this is for maximizing their chances to win also. I would bet more on a proved ~4-5 win player who has not visibly largely declined in skills, recovering enough of his performance in his usual position, than bit-type 28 year olds finally somehow striking it rich.

    Ichiro of all players deserves as much.

  3. FredBrack on June 19th, 2012 7:21 pm

    Brilliant, thorough analysis, Dave, with attention paid to the complexity of the situation. Nice to see a Mariner blogger who can sing more than one note.

  4. Kazinski on June 19th, 2012 8:46 pm

    I agree Ichiro should still have an opportunity to turn it around, but to ascribe all his problems to moving around in the batting order this year is to completely ignore last year. Last year they kept Ichiro in the one hole the entire season and he didn’t perform. At some point, and we are not there yet, a change needs to be made. And it won’t be the Mariners fault if Ichiro doesn’t perform.

    The Mariners at this point have to put the players on the field that are performing offensively, without totally screwing the pooch defensively. It that means Saunders and Wells playing everyday, and Carp, Ichiro, and Gutierrez sharing between on of the OF positions, 1B, and DH then that is how it needs to be. And that also includes Smoak’s time at 1st, if Carp is hitting well enough to justify the ABs.

  5. samregens on June 19th, 2012 9:26 pm

    — Wells playing everyday —

    No way does Wells deserve to be playing everyday with Ichiro being benched.

    You bring up 2011, and I agree it was a bad year for Ichiro, but it was an off year for him all around, not just on offense but defensively also (some ascribe it to understandable psychological effects from the terrible disaster in his home country last year).

    Even as a fan in 2011 I was worried about Ichiro’s future, especially because his defense was off. But now, I’m inclined to view 2011 as an aberration, because this year, asides from just the –results– in batting because he’s changed from the groundball approach for the worse, as Dave pointed out,
    in physical performance he looks like the Ichiro of old, showing great defense while his basic batting skills still seem there.

    2012 looks to me to be driven by a bad approach change necessitated by an understandable but bad mandate from management. I think the team has to give Ichiro some time to go back to his leadoff approach where he has undisputed excellent results for a full freaking decade from 2001 to 2010.

  6. Lauren, token chick on June 19th, 2012 11:08 pm

    Ichiro tonight: “I AM NOT DONE TAKE THAT”

  7. myohmysalami and rye on June 19th, 2012 11:18 pm

    I am a long time Mariners fan who lives in Japan. It is interesting to see how the local media in Japan report on Ichiro’s future.

    Shortly before the start of the 2012 season, owner Hiroshi Yamauchi declared that Ichiro has “Zaishoku kikan” which translates to mean “Lifetime Tenure”. In other words, as long as Ichiro wants to play in Seattle, he can and he will.

    Don’t get your hopes up that he will pull a Johjima / Sasaki and return to Japan to finish out his career. Ichiro is a very proud man who wants to reach career milestones and stay in America’s Major League.

    He’s not going anywhere, and yes Chicken Little, he will turn it around.

  8. Kazinski on June 19th, 2012 11:31 pm

    The lesson I would take from Ichiro’s performance tonight is he needs at least a day off a week. That solves a couple of problems, it gives a 38 year old player some rest, and it opens up a day of PT for one of the younger players. I was surprised to hear on the broadcast that yesterday was Ichiro’s second day off of the season, he should be sitting about 4 days a month. That’ll cost him any chance at 200 hits, but he wasn’t going to get that anyway the way he was going. And it may keep him in the MLB.

  9. Adam S on June 20th, 2012 12:15 am

    My sense is Ichiro sits down with himself in October and thinks about what he wants to do next year. But with free agency pending and him rapidly approaching replacement level — throw out the WAR, it’s based on him being +33 fielding runs over the season — he and the Mariners need to talk about his future now.

    If the Mariners don’t want to bring Ichiro back for 2013, which seems somewhat likely, and Ichiro wants to play, it’s just silly to hang on to him just to let him go. If Ichiro is going to retire, then there’s a lot of merit to letting him be a career Mariner. I really think the team would do him a favor to trade him to a contender and give him a shot at the playoffs.

  10. ck on June 20th, 2012 12:39 am

    Ichiro had four hits tonight. Of the 800 – odd MLB players now on a MLB roster, what percentage of them have had four hits and a sac fly in the same game? Ichiro probably will benefit from more days off; and the M’s will benefit from more days of Ichiro have five good ab’s…

  11. Gibbo on June 20th, 2012 1:02 am

    I believe if we ate most of his contract there would be a decent market for hm. He is thyet yep of guy that on the right stage would perform. Look at tonight, everyone is writing him off and that it is time to hang it up, part ways etc. he turns around and has a great night. Personally if I am a GM making a run at the playoffs and he is available, I want him on my team….He has a temperament for performance on the big stage.

    Haha, maybe that’s why I am not a GM

  12. vj on June 20th, 2012 4:02 am

    What happened since this was written?


    Looking at Ichiro’s splits over at fangraphs, this might be it:
    BABIP March/April: .305
    BABIP May: .273
    BABIP June: .224

  13. Plim on June 20th, 2012 4:51 am

    Has ownership changed? No? OK…. So, Ichiro isn’t going anywhere. More likely than not ownership will give him two years or more at quite a bit more than he is worth in order to have him go for 3K hits as a Mariner. No way THIS ownership group does anything to make Ichiro lose face back home in Japan.

    People can be mad or just accept there are other forces/issues in play beyond what happens on the field.

    So for me the real question is how much should this team consider paying him? If he ends up as a 3 WAR player then it could get a bit expensive.

  14. raul_podzednick on June 20th, 2012 9:16 am

    It’s not that Ichiro is done now, it’s that he will not be that productive in 2 years when this young crop is in it’s prime. I don’t want to just dump him, but if he can net a decent return sending him somewhere he can have a shot at a ring I am all for it.

  15. eponymous coward on June 20th, 2012 10:52 am

    I believe if we ate most of his contract there would be a decent market for hm.

    You mean like there’s been for Figgins?

    Yeah, I know, Ichiro is a considerably better player than Figgins. But if the assumption is “Wells and Carp are basically the same level of talent Ichiro is, except they are younger and under team control, so they should be in the lineup for a team that’s doing their annual implosion into irrelevancy”… well, you’re talking about a 2 month rental of a guy who’s OPS’ing .607 over the past month. Are we really sure there’s an actual market for him, where he’d play every day? Or would he be sitting on a bench for a better team most of the time? In which case, why accept the trade?

    Before we all say “but there’s a chance of a ring involved…”, maybe his motivation isn’t to sit on a bench on a good team. Maybe it’s to play. Maybe it’s even… play in Seattle where he signed his deal and has 10&5 rights.

    This goes back to Dave’s point of “So, it’s not nearly as simple as just saying ‘ship him to a contender’”.

    It’s not that Ichiro is done now, it’s that he will not be that productive in 2 years when this young crop is in it’s prime.

    Ichiro’s contract expires at the end of this year, so if he’s on the roster in 2014, it’s because the team signed him to a new deal. I don’t see this happening- the team’s probably not in a position where they can pay Ichiro an 8 digit salary to be approximately equal in value to Wells, Carp or Guti. This team doesn’t need a bunch of role players covering the OF because they have enough of them under contract next year between everyone I just mentioned; they need everyday players, because Wells/Carp/Guti probably aren’t enough (and probably someone at 1B/DH too, because unless Smoak’s going to catch fire in the second half, he’ll be 26 and a below-average talent at 1B next year). If Ichiro isn’t an everyday player any more as far as the M’s are concerned, he doesn’t fit on a team that has less than 50 million in salary to spend on players not named Felix, Chone or Guti. It’s not like the fans are coming out to the ballpark to see Ichiro on a bad team now; I don’t see it hurting the team at the gate if he’s back in Japan in 2013.

  16. currcoug on June 20th, 2012 11:02 am

    “Bad organizations are the ones that try and get lucky on marginal talent. Yes, you can draw to an inside straight on players. Is it worth having another cringe-inducing departure of a veteran to give two marginal players maybe 200 extra plate appearances? I don’t think so.”

    …and that is where we disagree. Wells is not a “marginal” player. In fact, he is clearly more talented than Morse and Lahair. Moreover, his career SLG of .470 in 372 AB’s is certainly something the Mariners desperately need, particularly from the right side.

    It is a small sample size, but Wells hits pretty well at Safeco, pardon the pun.

    I also don’t think the Nationals and Cubs are bad organizations.

  17. mca on June 20th, 2012 11:31 am

    This made it 60 comments without anyone mentioning Japanese ownership. I wish it had gone on longer, but, alas, it did not. I don’t mean this as an attack on Plim, but rather than perpetuation of the idea, rampant in places outside of USSM, that Japanese ownership meddles in anything related to Ichiro.
    There is no evidence whatsoever that Ichiro has ever been given special treatment because of his nationality. The only suggestion that they have ever given any preference to a Japanese player is Johjima’s admittedly bad contract, but even this doesn’t look so bad after watching years of Rob Johnson and Miguel Olivo. I wish there had been some interference when Johjima lost playing time to the far inferior Johnson, but somehow that happened even with ownership being who it is. Ownership has not overbid on any of the potentially great pitchers coming out of Japan, and they clearly haven’t done anything about Wedge’s underuse of Iwakuma. Ichiro did get a big contract, but even with the big dollars, he was underpaid for many of the years of the contract (not to mention the exceedingly cheap wins they got out of him before that contract). If Ichiro is indeed fully in decline, the Mariners will have a delicate situation with many issues, but nationality is not a big one.
    Ichiro has been the face of this franchise for longer than any player other than Ken Griffey Jr.(Edgar’s best years were almost all while Griffey was the Mariners’ face). How often does a player with iconic status in a city get unceremoniously dumped? There might be an argument for Jordan- Pippen in Chicago, and that did not turn out well for the Bulls. In the NFL, there’s Brett Favre, but he mostly brought it upon himself, and there was a budding superstar waiting behind him. I don’t think even the biggest fan believes Casper Wells has elite potential. I can’t think of any examples in baseball (okay, the Griffey thing didn’t go so well). Let’s please ask questions about how a team handles a star in decline, but not about how they handle a Japanese star in decline. There is too much inherent xenophobia.

  18. currcoug on June 20th, 2012 11:56 am

    I know it won’t play here, but you might want to read Thiel’s book.

  19. eponymous coward on June 20th, 2012 12:08 pm

    I also don’t think the Nationals and Cubs are bad organizations.

    The Nationals might not be too bad, but the Cubs have been a joke for a pretty long time.

    And I’m not talking about putting Carp and/or Wells on the waiver wire and losing the ability to play them in 2013 (which is what we did with Morse and Lahair- give them away to other organizations), so we can play Ichiro every inning for the rest of the year, since we don’t have to do this– the problem of having too many fourth OFers goes away once Ichiro’s contract expires at the end of the year.

    I’m suggesting that we’re talking about (at most) couple hundred plate appearances of evaluation in a lost season of a couple of marginal players (Wellls and Carp), and giving Ichiro a Griffey or Figgins-style benching for his last few weeks under contract to do that isn’t worth it if we end up with Ichiro doing what Griffey or Figgins did when they were mishandled- blowing up the clubhouse and giving the organization another embarrassing self-inflicted injury. I don’t think he’d do that quite the same way, but maybe he’d just head back to Japan.

    Oh, and all this fretting about roster problems when Carp comes back assumes that Guti doesn’t hit like he did for his last 600 PAs or so (which basically makes him the same kind of offensive drag on things as Ichiro is when he has a bad month, where you should arguably be benching him a lot), and nobody gets injured (out the group of Guti, Smoak, Carp, Saunders, Wells and Ichiro, the only one who’s not had a significant injury in the last year or so is Ichiro).

  20. currcoug on June 20th, 2012 1:06 pm

    Well stated, Ep.

  21. samregens on June 20th, 2012 4:35 pm

    What a great post, mca.
    You write very persuasively about the lack of proof of any “Japanese ownership over-meddling”, in contrast to the cheap innuendo dished out by some people and reporters in the media with apparent axes to grind.

    Personally I wish the ownership had intervened more in cases like the lousy Rob Johnson getting too much playing time while Johjima was pushed out, etc. (Looking back, I think Johjima was in aggregate a better catcher than anything we’ve had since).
    Iwakuma has been treated terribly, although he had higher offers and took a lower salary to play here.

    The ownership’s track record is actually pretty good. Any Japanese regular player who they happened to acquire (Kaz, Ichiro, Shiggy, Johjima) has performed well, or at least looking at their whole time here, above their total cost.
    And they have avoided overbidding/overpaying on Igawa (Irabu), Matsuzaka, Kuroda, Nishizawa, Darvish, etc. Although Kuroda and Darvish have performed pretty well also so far.
    How about that Japanese Yankee and Red Sox ownership?

  22. goat on June 21st, 2012 11:40 am

    I’ve been looking forward to this post since it was hinted at (haven’t been able to get online for a few days). I completely agree with everything you said here before Carp returns. I agree with others that maybe Carp gets more AB at 1B when he gets back. Smoak has been bad, and still has options. I think the only way to even make room for Carp on the roster is to demote Smoak or get rid of Olivo (assuming none of the outfielders are going anywhere). Getting rid of Figgins won’t do it, because then you only have one bench player to backup the infield.

  23. goat on June 21st, 2012 12:33 pm

    I doubt that Ichiro gets traded, but if he does two contenders that might be interested are the Pirates and the Reds. The Reds are in win now mode, and are a bit light in the outfield, particularly for lefthanders. The Pirates are doing surprising well, and could definitely use a veteran outfielder. I don’t know if Ichiro would accept a trade to either of them, but those seem to me like the two contenders most likely to be interested in giving him significant playing time.

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