Ibañez’s leadership worth more than bat to Mariners

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comJanuary 24, 2013 

Winter additions to a baseball roster usually send idle minds into fast-forward mode. But when the Seattle Mariners acquired Raul Ibañez on Dec. 26, outfielder Michael Saunders went the other way.

“First thing that popped into my mind when we signed Raul,” Saunders said Wednesday, “was remembering when I was in the lower ranks of the minor leagues and he was still a Mariner. Every spring training he’d come over and talk to us for a few hours.

“The stories he told us … he’s been through it all. People told him he’d never play in the big leagues, and 17 years later, he’s proven all the doubters wrong. He brings a lot of life stories to our team and a phenomenal veteran presence.”

The Mariners are paying Ibañez $2.75 million this season to do more than tell stories. He’s expected to contribute as a designated hitter, backup first baseman and left-handed batter in a pinch. But, yes, Ibañez’s most substantial gift could be the gab he brings to a clubhouse craving for older players able and willing to share insights with those still learning the nuances of a frustrating game.

“It’s a ‘been there, done that’ thing,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said Wednesday during the team’s annual pre-spring training media luncheon at Safeco Field.

Asked if the 2012 Mariners suffered from an absence of veteran gravitas, Zduriencik was blunt.

“I don’t think there’s a doubt,” he said.

Which helps explain the Mariners’ pursuit of the 40-year-old Ibañez and fellow free-agents Jason Bay (34) and Kendrys Morales (29). A three-team trade with Oakland and Washington brought still another veteran, Michael Morse (30), into the mix.

Morales, Morse, perhaps Ibañez and maybe even Bay figure to provide a middle-of-the-lineup power presence that for years has been the team’s most pressing need. But there’s another, less quantifiable component about these veterans, and it’s best personified by Ibañez.

“You’ve got a young kid sitting in the on-deck circle,” Zduriencik said, “and someone like Raul Ibañez gets up and puts his arm around the kid and says, ‘I’ve been in this situation before.’ That’s a whole lot different than coming from the hitting coach, or the manager.”

Ibañez was 24 – about the same age as Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak – when he made his big league debut with the 1996 Mariners. He didn’t play full time until he turned 30, after he signed as a free agent with Kansas City. Last season, despite hitting .240 for the Yankees, he was listed on one MVP voter’s ballot.

That’s 361 fewer MVP votes than Miguel Cabrera received, yet one more than any Mariners position player received.

“Championships don’t come easy,” manager Eric Wedge said. “You’ve got to have talent, toughness and players that get it. And I think we’ve got some players in here that are really going to help us in that regard.

“You can make an argument,” Wedge continued, “that Raul Ibañez is as good as anybody in the game in regard to performing and playing. That’s why you sign him, to be a baseball player. But beyond that, there are the intangibles he brings as a guy who has been part of championship clubs and really done everything in the game.”

Wedge described the difference between last season’s group of veteran players and the new – OK, not-so-new – Mariners quartet preparing for 2013 as “night and day.”

Wedge wouldn’t identify the names of those who comported themselves as if their sole responsibility inside the clubhouse was to inhabit the place, but connecting the dots has the approximate degree-of-difficulty of, well, connecting dots.

“You guys know,” said Wedge, “who the veterans we had last year were.”

Hmmn. Ichiro Suzuki? Chone Figgins? Miguel Olivo?

“And you know,” Wedge went on, “who the veterans we have this year are. You probably can figure it out. I’m not going to talk about the guys that aren’t around here anymore, but you can look at the role and their impact, or lack thereof. It is what it is.

“This is professional sports. This is the big leagues. This is the highest level. Either you do it or you don’t. If you help, you’re on board with it. If you don’t, we’re going to eliminate you.”

While Wedge probably didn’t mean to sound like a former operative of the Czech Secret Police, it’s obvious the leadership-void issue is something that makes him bristle.

Paging Raul Ibañez: The Mariners’ manager needs more than the bat of a baseball lifer. He needs the heart of a baseball lifer, the mind of a baseball lifer, the voice of a baseball lifer.

The sky is the limit, Raul, and the floor is yours.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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