McGrath: Sunset falls harshly upon 2 of Mariners’ stars from 2001

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comMarch 26, 2014 

Spring training has not gone well for the best position player and best pitcher on the best team the Mariners ever put on the field.

Ichiro Suzuki’s days with the New York Yankees appear numbered, and Freddy Garcia’s days with the Atlanta Braves are done.

It has been 13 years since that enchanted summer when the 2001 Mariners won 116 games behind an offense jump-started by Ichiro (the AL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player) and a starting rotation anchored by Garcia (who led the AL in earned-run average and innings pitched and finished third for the Cy Young Award).

As their former Mariners teammates quietly drifted off into the sunset — or, in case of truck pitchman Jay Buhner, took to screaming “Tell ’em The Bone sent ya!” during cringe-inducing television commercials — Ichiro and Garcia continued careers sustained by dissimilar training methods.

Now they find themselves wondering whether the end of the line finally has come for them, too.

Garcia, 37, was released Monday by the Braves, even though they are desperate for starting pitchers after learning Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are out for the season with major elbow injuries. The Braves just weren’t desperate enough to hang onto Garcia, who took the news the way anybody else would.

“They said they didn’t want to pick up my contract,” Garcia told an Atlanta reporter. “I gotta go. … I don’t have anything to say.”

Garcia’s unceremonious exit

from the Braves was preceded by reports that the Yankees are looking to trade the 40-year-old Ichiro. Seems the Yanks’ acquisitions of free agents Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, and their re-signing of Brett Gardner, have relegated Ichiro to a role as a fourth outfielder.

The Yankees owe $6.5 million to Ichiro on a contract that expires after 2014, and while payroll is never a concern for them, $6.5 million is a lot to pay for a fourth outfielder who hasn’t hit over .300 in a full season since 2010, and whose on-base percentage last season dropped to .297 — Mendoza Line territory.

“He’s a great defender and he can steal a base,” general manager Brian Cashman insisted the other day. “He provides us with options.”

Cashman’s No. 1 option, according to CBSSports.com baseball insider Jon Heyman, is to arrange a deal for Ichiro that would return “quality prospects” to the Yankees, who won’t get any kind of prospect for Ichiro unless they take responsibility for most — if not all — of his salary.

The Mariners, inevitably, have emerged as candidates who might be interested in such an arrangement. In exchange for a player or two from Single-A, Ichiro could return to the city where he launched (and pretty much completed) his case for the Hall of Fame.

The idea of Ichiro wearing a Seattle uniform again is not as you crazy as one might think. The team needs speed at the top of the order and speed in the outfield, which is why Abe Almonte, without hitting a lick in the Cactus League, appears to have been rewarded an opening-day roster spot that rolled through his door on a room-service cart.

Ichiro has lost a step over the years, but in a 40-yard sprint race (or, better yet, a 30-yard sprint: it’s 90 feet between bases) he still beats anybody on the Mariners but Almonte.

Furthermore, he needs “only” 258 hits to reach 3,000 in the major leagues. Even if his potential offensive production is downsized from his prime, when seasons of at least 200 hits were presumed, it’s conceivable Ichiro could achieve the 3,000-hit milestone by the end of 2015.

And, oh, have we mentioned the Yankees would pick up the tab for 2014?

So there are reasons to ponder an everybody-lived-happily-ever-after homecoming for Ichiro at Safeco Field.

There are also reasons to forget about it, beginning with the most obvious: Remember how the last everybody-lived-happily-ever-after homecoming went at Safeco Field for a Seattle baseball legend? Ken Griffey Jr.’s second stint with the Mariners began well and ended in hell.

The task of determining whether Griffey had lost his ability to get his bat around a major league fastball was shrugged off by the front office and left up to Griffey, too prideful to be objective about his decline. Griffey’s defiant belief in himself was understandable — he was named to MLB’s All-Century team at the age of 29 — but if Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik learned anything from the Griffey-homecoming debacle, it was to be leery of arranging second-time-around baseball marriages with grooms ready to retire.

How’s this sound for a worse-case scenario between Ichiro and the Mariners? He returns to Seattle and collects, say, 125 hits. (He finished with 136 hits last season as a full-timer who appeared in 150 games.) That still leaves him 133 short of 3,000, meaning he’d need to return in 2015 and, perhaps, in 2016.

And return for what? To attain a record-book number deemed special because it’s got three zeroes after a comma?

The Mariners chose to move on from the franchise’s Ichiro Era midway through the 2012 season. Although the decision to retool with kids hasn’t paid off yet, it’s easy to forget the retooling is approaching only its second full season, under its second manager.

Either you move on, or you don’t. If you move on, you can’t look back.

Acquiring Ichiro in the hope fans someday can celebrate his accumulation of 3,000 hits would not be moving on. It would be looking back.

Ichiro probably paid no attention to Garcia’s release from the Braves on Monday, but 13 years after that amazing summer at Safeco Field, the pitcher summed up the fate he shares with his former Mariners teammate in three words.

“I gotta go.”

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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