Trade Ichiro: Why Seattle has to do the Unthinkable
If the Seattle Mariners want to contend in the AL West anytime soon, they need to seriously consider trading Ichiro Suzuki. It may sound absurd, but Seattle needs to get some young talent in exchange for an aging, sharply declining star player before he walks away as a free agent at the end of 2012. The Mariners also need to move Ichiro before his star loses any more luster than it already has.
The Mariners have been nowhere close to the playoffs since the 2004 season, and only twice in the past eight seasons have the Mariners finished in third place or higher in the AL West Division. That would not be truly awful, except for the fact that the AL West is a 4 team division. The Mariners have lost 90 games or more in five of the past eight seasons, and in 2008 they attained the dubious record of being the first team in the history of Major League Baseball to lose 100 games with a $100 million or higher payroll.
Things are not getting any easier for the Mariners. The Texas Rangers and their star-studded lineup of power bats and power arms continue to dominate the AL West, and the LA Angels added Albert Pujols this past offseason to a club that also boasts one of the league’s best starting rotations. Oakland is always a bit of a wildcard, however, the A’s are constantly able to field competitive teams on a shoestring budget, and if Oakland ever gets a new stadium and a corresponding increase in revenue, the A’s may finally have the means to be a permanent contender. The only saving grace for Seattle may be the addition of a weak Houston Astros club to the AL West in 2013 and the prospect of more games against a weak opponent.
All of this brings us back to Ichiro. His five-year, $90 million contract will expire at the end of this season, although the Mariners have deferred payments owing to Ichiro until approximately 2032. Ichiro has supplied the Mariners with strong batting averages, speed and excellent defense for most the past 12 seasons, and has unquestionably become the face of the Seattle franchise. These qualities allowed the Mariners to justify starting Ichiro primarily in right field, a position which most teams reserve for true sluggers. Ichiro never had the raw power of a big league right fielder, but he was usually able to post good slugging percentages because of his ability to leg out doubles and triples and smack the occasional home run. At age 38, Ichiro is finally starting to slow down, and his limited power is now almost non-existent. In 2011, Ichiro finished with fewer than 200 hits for the first time in his Major League career, and he also posted an OPS of just .645. His 2012 stats are a bit better, thanks to a hot start, but he is only slugging .388 and has stolen just 3 bases. Ichiro still possesses good speed, but even that is starting to diminish. Simply put, Ichiro is starting to cost the Mariners runs, and ultimately victories, because he is delivering production that is well below what every good team receives from their right fielders. Ichiro is occupying a spot that could be held by a young, slugging outfielder who could post the 20-25 home runs and 100 RBI’s that the Mariners so desperately need.
Ichiro’s current level of play would be more tolerable on a team like the Rangers or Yankees, who have enough power bats to complement a slap-hitter like Ichiro. Unfortunately, Seattle’s 2011 team posted a pathetic 109 home runs and a collective .233 batting average. Although there are some good prospects in the system, the Mariners posses few true impact hitters at the major league level. And that is exactly why Seattle needs to trade Ichiro now. He still has value in the right environment, he still is viewed as a big-name star by many in baseball, and he could surely bring Seattle a nice return in a trade. The Mariners could also afford to spend his $18 million salary on other areas of the team, including badly needed upgrades at shortstop, center field, and the starting rotation. The Mariners need to reload and add to their growing collection of young players and prospects, so that they are in a position to contend in a couple of seasons.
Ichiro should be celebrated for the great career he has had in Seattle and the marvelous achievements he has realized in a game dominated by men who are much bigger, stronger and powerful than he is. He deserves the chance to play for a World Series Championship, and he is not going to realize that chance on the 2012 Seattle Mariners. Most of all, Seattle needs to show their commitment to building a contender by trading the face of their franchise at a time when his skills and contributions are being exposed by, rather than complementing, the team on which he plays.