The day after the World Series is a day I dread, especially if the Yankees win. Denied the anticipation of a real baseball game until April, fans are left to debate the pros and cons of an open-market system that ensures the Yanks can install a highly paid star at every position.
But Thursday was different. Instead of groaning during each replay of Hideki Matsui’s bravura performance – he tied a Series single-game record with six RBI on Wednesday – I imagined how the designated hitter might look in a Mariners uniform.
It could happen. Matsui’s contract with the Yankees has expired, and the team gets two weeks to decide whether to re-sign him, offer him arbitration for a one-year contract, or allow him to become a free agent. As recently as a few days ago, Matsui figured to be expendable:
He’s 35, and the owner of two surgically repaired knees that restrict him to a designated hitter – a role the Yankees are thinking about assigning to the tandem of 36-year-old outfielder Johnny Damon and 38-year-old catcher Jorge Posada.
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Any decision on Matsui’s future with the Yankees was put on hold Wednesday night, when he was named the World Series MVP despite starting three of the six Series games on the bench. (Unable to serve as a DH in Philadelphia, Matsui still finished with three homers and eight RBI, while hitting .615.)
How do you tell the 2009 World Series MVP he’s not part of his team’s plans for 2010? If you’re the Yankees, who’ve never allowed sentiment to interfere with the annual retooling of their powerhouse roster, you do it in four words. “Thanks, and good luck.”
Anyway, just for fun, suppose Matsui is released. Do the Mariners make a pitch for him?
I can think of five reasons why they would:
• He bats left-handed, with power. This season at Safeco Field, which is favorable to left-handed power hitters, Matsui hit three homers in 19 at-bats. Over 27 career games at Safeco Field, Matsui is hitting .312, with five homers.
• He’s a full-time DH, content to remain a full-time DH. The Mariners haven’t enjoyed a productive full-time DH since Edgar Martinez retired in 2003. Furthermore, Matsui defies traditional right-lefty splits: He hit .282 against lefties this season, with 13 homers and 46 RBI in only 131 at-bats. (For the year, he hit 28 homers with 90 RBI.)
• As one of Japan’s two most recognized baseball superstars – the other, of course, is Ichiro Suzuki – Matsui reportedly is amenable to playing for a franchise with Japanese ownership.
• In exchange for providing some desperately needed middle-of-the-lineup pop, Matsui won’t rob the Mariners farm system, or cost them any of their young major leaguers. All he’d cost is, well, money. (A one-year contract, in the $8 million range, would be ideal.)
• He’s won a World Series ring. When the Mariners concluded their season in October, the only player on their roster to have won a World Series ring was reliever Miguel Batista, who isn’t expected to return.
So it’s a no-brainer, huh? Wait for the Yankees to decide on “Godzilla,” then swoop in if they cut him loose?
Not really, because I can also think of five reasons why the Mariners won’t be interested in Matsui.
• Those ailing knees. An iron man during his first three years in New York, Matsui hasn’t played in more than 143 games in a season since 2005.
• The Japanese connection. Matsui and Ichiro are acquaintances, not friends, and if signing Matsui creates a distracted, unhappy Ichiro, all deals are off.
• Did I mention money? However many millions of dollars are invested in acquiring Matsui would mean fewer millions of dollars to retain ace pitcher Felix Hernandez.
• General manager Jack Zduriencik’s philosophy towards roster building dwells on speedy position players whose defense is as valued as their offense. Matsui is none of those things. True, neither is Ken Griffey, Jr., which brings us to the heart of the artichoke. …
• As a left-handed DH, Matsui eliminates the possibility of Griffey contributing anything more meaningful to the team than contriving clubhouse pranks. Griffey’s status cannot be overestimated. The Mariners left the door open to his return – they gave him the honor of quitting on his terms – and wouldn’t the acquisition of Matsui be tantamount to shoving Griffey aside?
Griffey had the opportunity to retire in style, riding on the shoulders of teammates during a last-waltz lap around Safeco Field. That he chose to ponder the possibility of extending his Seattle homecoming was his prerogative. Signing Matsui, and then giving him the keys to the everyday DH gig, could undermine all the good will the Mariners have achieved with their franchise icon.
In a perfect world, Griffey is challenged and inspired by Matsui’s presence. In a perfect world, Griffey’s own troublesome knees allow him to play the field with a measure of the majesty that was his trademark.
Then again, in a perfect world, the day after the World Series is the best day of all time.