Sports Outside the Beltway

Mariner’s Major Concern: Keep Ichiro

The sparkplug atop the Seattle Mariner’s lineup has been constant for six years. And if Bill Bavasi has anything to say about it, Ichiro Suzuki is not going anywhere. But the problem of signing him isn’t going anywhere either. At least not yet.

The six-time All-Star will make $11 million in the final season of a $44 million, four-year deal. A six-time Gold Glove outfielder, Suzuki is eligible to become a free agent after the World Series.

Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi would like to work out an extension with Suzuki’s agent, Tony Attanasio. Just not necessarily tomorrow. Or even before the season begins April 2.

“It’s a top priority,” Bavasi said Wednesday. “But the timing is not that important. Whatever he and Tony are comfortable with. And whatever our ownership is comfortable with.”

So the potentially difficult negotiations could drag through the summer.

Ichiro Suzuki has been a marvel in Seattle. His ability to get on base via the base hit, without a corresponding ability to draw walks, is otherworldly. In his six seasons he has posted a line of .331/.376/.438. Sabermetricians are fond of Isolated Discipline (IsoD) a statistic that qualifies a high OBP, like Ichiro’s, that is overly dependent on batting average. Suzuki’s is very low. In comparison, Adam Dunn, who has also been in the majors for six years (though his rookie year was a half season), has a line of .245/.380/.513, and an IsoD three times as good as Ichiro’s. Does that make Dunn a better player? Absolutely not, but it does illustrate the vast differences between the skillsets of a slugger like Dunn who draws a lot of walks and a speedy hacker like Suzuki, who makes contact like its nobody’s business.

Nicely, players tend to develop better plate discipline as their athletic skills begin to deteriorate. And for Suzuki, that time may be drawing near. This season is his Age 33 season. Ichiro’s comparables include players like Ralph Garr, Bake McBride and Ron LaFlore whose major league playing days were over by 35. Also on the list are Kenny Lofton and Ken Griffey Sr., who had long careers (Lofton is still going).

The question for Bavasi to answer is will Ichiro be able to adapt to slower wheels and beating out fewer groundballs. In that sense, seeing what he is capable of this season, as he switches to centerfield, is the wise play. As key as it is to sign Ichiro, it is necessary for a Seattle team saddled with onerous contracts to both Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to spend their money wisely.

The Mariners meanwhile continue to progress towards mediocrity. Despite Mike Hargrove’s recent comments that the goal of the Mariners is to win the AL West (it should be) the talent just isn’t there to win a division with the likes of Oakland and their young talented pitchers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Mariners will be lucky to sneak into second. The Mariners are not terrible, by any stretch. But the bad deals they signed Sexson and Beltre to crippled their ability to improve holes in their rotation. Instead they have a 21-year old third year player at the front of the rotation and a close who fell into the job when another bad signing flamed out last April.

The Mariner’s have not sniffed the postseason since Ichiro’s rookie season. They improved a little last season, but the nine game improvement wasn’t enough to rescue them from the cellar. They don’t score runs consistently, and they will not have Gil Meche who was effective and hometown favorite Jamie Moyer who was as good in Seattle as he was bad on the road.

Harkening back to a previous post, a worst to first season is unrealistic, without a organizational development plan. The Mariner’s really don’t seem to have one. Their lineup is okay, but it is heavy on players who lack discipline. Middle infielders Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt played well and are young, but they need to improve their batting eye. Sexson and Beltre need to live up to their contracts and the Jeremy Reed experience is coming to an end. Youngsters like Brandon Morrow, Ryan Feierabend Mark Lowe and Chris Tillman need to be given a chance to develop. Former Mariners Gil Meche, Joel Pinheiro and Rafael Soriano, as well as King Felix, all were rushed to the major leagues and suffered as a result of it. For Hernandez, the question is whether his arm can develop properly in the crucible of a major league season. So far so good, but with someone as young as he is, anything can go wrong.

With a mandate from CEO Howard Lincoln that a dramatic improvement is needed, Bavasi and Hargrove may be the two most likely candidates to get axed after a slow start. Times are not nice in Seattle.

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