Some advice for the Mariners front office: If you sign Ichiro Suzuki to the one-year contract that multiple sources reported was imminent Monday, go easy on the hype. Go very easy.
No Ichiro bobbleheads. No touting his return to the team on television and radio ads. No Ichiro poster giveaways.
Forget that he’s a future first-ballot Hall of Fame selection based on numbers almost entirely accumulated during the 11 full seasons he starred in Seattle, and pretend he’s just another veteran journeyman whose addition to the roster is little noticed.
That’s asking a lot, but pressing a mute key on the noise is the best way to justify what seems to be a sound acquisition at a reasonable cost. The 2017 Mariners often started three rookie outfielders, and there’s legitimate doubt whether any of the three will be ready when the club returns from spring training.
Left fielder Ben Gamel is down with an oblique injury that could sideline him through April. Right fielder Mitch Haniger is dealing with a sore right hand. Guillermo Heredia, who played center field last season and figured to contribute as a fourth outfielder this season, is recovering from shoulder surgery.
In other words, as of Monday morning, the Mariners only healthy, full-time outfielder was Dee Gordon, a converted second baseman still learning the intricacies of tracking down fly balls hit to the warning track.
Ichiro fills a temporary need. He’s not the athlete he used to be – the man is 44 years old, almost a decade past his prime – but he can track down fly balls in his sleep, and he’s not entirely useless at the plate.
Ichiro’s 2017 season, spent as a utility outfielder/pinch hitter with the Marlins, was as a tale of two halves. His .202 batting average on July 4 told him it was time to retire, but if we know anything about the most mysterious sports personality on the planet, we know he doesn’t listen to voices telling him what to do.
He hit .315 after July 4, finishing with a .255 average in 196 at-bats. Not great, not even adequate – his Wins Above Replacement rate was -0.3 – which explains why a .322 career hitter looms as obtainable at a bargain-basement price.
There typically is no downside in arranging a modest, one-year deal for an outfielder to join a team with a paucity of available outfielders. But when the outfielder happens to be Ichiro instead of, say, fellow free agent Jon Jay, the downside is obvious.
Just another Mariners PR stunt, cynics were braying Monday. Another example of a team with no immediate hope to compete in the AL West tethering itself to the past. Ichiro was to the 2001 Mariners what Ken Griffey Jr. was to the 1995 Mariners.
Griffey was reacquired by Seattle, in 2009, for a sort of victory-lap conclusion to a glorious career. The victory lap turned out to be a sudden bolt out of town, when Griffey called it quits after 33 games in 2010.
The prevailing memory is of a PR stunt that backfired, but the memory is a bit jaded. Griffey hit 19 homers for the 2009 Mariners, whose 85-77 record was sandwiched between the 61-101 records of 2008 and 2010. Ownership’s determination to return Griffey to the place where he belonged worked, until it didn’t.
Ichiro’s return should present minimal drama. At his career pinnacle – in 2005, when his 262 hits broke the single-season record George Sisler set in 1922 – he went about his business in a key of low. He worked out his own way and kept a distance from everybody, even teammates.
Ichiro never has distinguished himself the life of the party, presuming he’s actually been to a party. The guy loves to play baseball and lives to play baseball. He’s an outfielder familiar with the nuances of the outfield, drawing interest from a team with three ailing outfielders.
This is a bad move... how?
Well, here’s how: If the Mariners turn it into a Welcome Back homecoming of a franchise icon.
Sign him for a year, with the understanding he’ll play more in April and May than in August and September. Ichiro’s maniacal training regimen will assure his readiness to contribute in April and May.
In the unlikely event he concedes to the idea of retirement, an end-of-the-road promotion at Safeco Field will be fitting. Until then?
Go easy on the hype. Go very easy.